TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – Officials in Tallahassee are pushing against legislative changes that could expand gambling in Florida telling members of the Senate Gaming Committee that any expansion would alter the state’s image as a family friendly destination.
Meanwhile, officials from smaller communities that have sought to revive dog tracks and other pari-mutuel operations through offering poker and slot machines voiced support for more games during a hearing at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland.
Those backers of additional gaming were joined by a number of senior patrons of the Seminoles Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa and supporters of now-closed adult arcades.
With a focus on the economic and social impacts of gambling as the hearing opened, committee members clearly heard two potential paths for the future of gaming from a diverse group of about 75 Floridians.
The hearing was the second of four planned across the state by the committee.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said Central Florida has worked hard to become a worldwide family friendly destination and research community.
“When I think of high-tech I don’t think of gambling, certainly not casino gambling,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs added that the world-class theme parks in her region could see their brands undermined by the introduction of casino gaming.
Disney has led efforts to block the expansion of gambling in the state, including proposals that would have allowed massive destination-resort casinos to South Florida.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings added that his counterparts from across the nation have told him that “wherever there is an expansion of lawful gambling, there is a corresponding increase in unlawful gambling.”
But officials from Bonita Springs told the senators to consider the individual desires of local communities when pondering new gambling regulations.
Lee County voters in November 2012 supported allowing slot machines at the Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs. With slot machines outside of the Seminole properties limited to pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the voter-approved measure in Lee County and others like it remain blocked.
Bonita Springs City Manager Carl Schwing said that limiting dog racing and adding slots would provide needed temporary construction jobs and permanent jobs that, at $39,000, would pay above the county average.
Bonita Springs City Commissioner Martha Simons pointed to the state’s $400,000 Spectrum Gaming Group study that concluded that the expansion of casino gambling, whether on a small-scale or very large scale, would have a moderately positive impact on the state economy.
“It would have a moderate impact on the state, but it would have a big impact on the city,” Simons said. “I’d rather keep the money in my state. Those who don’t want gaming in their counties, don’t vote for it. We voted for it.”
Helen DeMarco of Tampa, who frequents with friends the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, lent her support for a destination resort casino.
“Anybody who tries to argue that Florida shouldn’t become a gambling state doesn’t realize reality,” DeMarco said. “We already have gambling, why not add more choices for those of us to enjoy the game.”
Donna Blevins of Inverness, who called herself a Southern Baptist and professional poker player, supported legislation that would regulate online poker.
“Poker is not going away,” said Blevins, who runs a blog called Big Girl Poker. “It’s time Florida state coffers started to benefit from the revenue.”
However, Virgil Beato, a child protective investigator with the Department of Children and Families, cautioned the legislators to weigh the social impacts of new gaming options against the promise of increased revenue.
“Gambling expansion is not going to reduce instances of domestic abuse in the home or substance abuse in the home,” Beato said.
The Senate Gaming Committee is scheduled to take public input on the Spectrum study Monday in Tallahassee. Additional public hearings are set for Nov. 14 in Pensacola and Nov. 15 in Jacksonville.