Everybody Play the Game

Gambling is illegal in Florida. It says so in the state’s constitution.

It prohibits slot machines — unless it’s a pari-mutuel facility in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

It prohibits gambling houses — unless it’s an authorized horseracing, greyhound racing or jai alai facility, or the poker rooms also allowed at those locations.

It prohibits casinos — unless it’s an Indian-owned casino. Or it’s a “cruise to nowhere,” where gambling commences once the vessel hits international waters.

It prohibits running a lottery — unless it’s the state of Florida doing the running.

Also allowed are bingo, penny-ante poker, arcade amusement games and game promotions.

As a 2010 report by the Florida Senate Committee on Regulated Industries stated, “if the gaming activity is not expressly authorized, then the gambling is illegal.”

So, like many relationships, it’s complicated.

And a little hypocritical.

Florida voters ratified betting on horseracing, greyhound racing and jai alai in 1968. In 1986, voters approved a state lottery but rejected casinos by a 2-to-1 ratio. In 2004, voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing Broward and Miami-Dade counties to approve slot machines at local tracks and jai alai frontons. In 2005, Broward voters approved Las Vegas-style slot machines, but Miami-Dade voters narrowly rejected them. In 2008, Miami-Dade voters authorized slot machines.

The Legislature has been just as schizophrenic, legalizing slot machines in 1935, then repealing that law in 1937. In 1996, it added card rooms to pari-mutuel facilities, and more than a decade later, allowed no-limit, 24-hour-a-day poker. And on March 22, in the wake of conspiracy, money-laundering and racketeering charges against 57 people involved with Internet café operator Allied Veterans of the World, the House broke speed records outlawing gaming centers.

Of course, no Florida politician wants to be associated with these operations now, though they spent a lot of time hemming and hawing about them over the last few years. Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned a few hours after being questioned about her ties to Allied Veterans, which included doing public relations work.

But the far-reaching investigation is just another wrinkle in the complicated relationship Florida has with gambling. It’s easy to condemn an organization that makes millions under the guise of giving it to veterans, but pockets the vast majority of it, as investigators say Allied Veterans did.

What’s more difficult is coming to grips with our beliefs — sometimes puritanical, sometimes political — about gambling.

A 2012 Quinnipiac University poll of 1,412 registered Florida voters showed 48 percent approved of bringing Vegas-style casinos to the state, compared to 43 percent who were opposed. However, 61 percent said they believed casinos would be good for the state’s economy; 33 percent disagreed.

“Floridians, just like Americans everywhere, have gotten much more comfortable with gambling,” said Robert Jarvis, law professor and gambling expert at Nova Southeastern University. “The stigma has gone. Things have changed, and morals have changed, and I think there is unmet demand for gambling.”

That belief seems to bear out in the stream of poker players hitting Bestbet Jacksonville, the state’s largest and most profitable poker room. But we stop short of allowing full casinos. What’s the difference?

In 1978, Gov. Reubin Askew led a drive to help defeat a ballot initiative that would have allowed casinos. No Casinos was born and continues to fight expansion of gambling in the state, including a Miami mega-casino proposed by Genting, a Malaysian company.

No Casinos argues that if new casinos are legalized, taxpayers will pay for added crime, treatment for compulsive gamblers, and the social costs of destitute gamblers that more gambling will cause — because taxes paid by casinos won’t cover all those costs. As an example, No Casino states that slot machines at pari-mutuel wagering facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties generate only 25 percent of the promised $500 million per year for education.

Meanwhile, people who might never walk into a poker room or pull a slot machine lever line up to play the ever-lengthening list of games from the Florida Lottery. According to Florida statutes, the lottery must operate “so as to maximize revenues in a manner consonant with the dignity of the state and the welfare of its citizens.”

It must be our citizens’ welfare the Florida Lottery has in mind when it adds games like Mega Millions (beginning May 15) to its portfolio. Florida ranks third nationwide in overall lottery sales, with more than $4.45 billion a year, behind New York and Massachusetts, according to the Sun Sentinel.

And because any adult can buy a lottery ticket at almost any gas station or grocery store, the game’s promise of instant gratification and easy money beckons to those who often can least afford it. Those stores have big incentives: Each of the lottery’s 13,200 retail outlets gets 5 percent of ticket sales, a 1 percent commission on tickets it cashes, plus bonuses. Consider this: Publix sells 18 percent of all tickets, making $36 million a year, according to Nick Sortal’s Action blog on sun-sentinel.com.

It’s true that the Florida Lottery money goes to education, and since 1997 has been funding Bright Futures, a program to help high school students afford college. But that money was meant to be in addition to the public funds already going to education. That’s not exactly how it turned out.

How many of those who oppose the lottery or poker rooms or slot machines, actual or pretend, fill out a bracket for March Madness each year, hoping to win bragging rights — and a little mad money?

Gambling is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s time for Floridians to do some serious soul-searching about gambling. At this point, the door is not just cracked. It’s wide open. Now we need to figure out how to make the rules fair and transparent and the resulting industry heavily taxed and regulated so that we can pay for all the bad things betting creates — and maybe a few good things, too.