TALLAHASSEE — Some state lawmakers aren’t ready to accept a study’s conclusion that expanding gambling would have a minimal impact on jobs and the Florida economy.
The Spectrum Gaming Group presented the $388,845 study before the state House Select Committee on Gaming Wednesday. Expanding slots and destination casinos would only have a “moderately positive” effect on the economy and a “mild” effect on wages and employment in the state, said Joseph Weinert, Spectrum’s vice president.
The study contends that the state’s economy is so large and the counties most likely to get casinos — Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Orange — are so populous that the impact would be negligible.
That wasn’t the answer Rep. Jim Waldman, the ranking Democrat on the committee, wanted to hear. He noted the job increases would be in the thousands regardless of whether the local population was big enough to make them statistically insignificant.
The study found opening up Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Orange to stand-alone casinos and slot machines would add more than 18,000 jobs in the “leisure and hospitality” and “other services” sectors. And nearly 1,500 new businesses would open in those sectors.
Locally, the Ebro Greyhound Park has long sought slot machines and in 2011 Washington County voters, through a local referendum, approved putting them at the dog track, which also has a card room. The study found adding slot machines would increase the number of businesses in the county by only 2 percent and would increase jobs in the “leisure and hospitality” and “other services” sectors by 3.5 percent (21 jobs). It would also increase wages in those sectors by about 3 percent.
The numbers, however, don’t reveal whole truth. The Ebro track owners announced plans last year to install 2,000 slots at a $300 million facility, which would include a hotel with up to 500 rooms as well as retail, restaurants and an entertainment venue. The hotel alone would likely employ dozens of locals.
But all those plans have been halted as owners wait for the Legislature to act on gaming’s expansion.
“Winners and losers”
State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, pointed out that any single business moving into a heavily populated area will have a minimal impact on the economy.
“It would seem to me, statistically, from a comparison standpoint, that the employment effect of any industry injected into a smaller county is always going to be greater than it is in a larger county,” he said.
State Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, said the economic impact would be sizable in a less populous state and was most interested in the study’s mention of “winners and losers” for the four counties that could see new casinos.
“Being from Orange County, I presume some of those counties could be big winners and some of those counties could be big losers,” Precourt said.
A Spectrum representative clarified that groups of individuals and businesses would most likely impacted, not whole counties, noting the casinos compete with some businesses while complementing others. In rural Washington County, the Ebro track’s expansion could steal hotel guests and restaurant patrons from existing facilities, but it would offer locals more dining options, draw in more tourists and create more jobs, likely at higher pay.
It can come down to a matter of perspective, said Michael Pollock, Spectrum’s managing director. If a casino comes to town, it can increase the prevailing wage rate, drawing workers from a neighboring county with a weaker economy. From the workers’ standpoint it’s a positive, but from the businesses standpoint it’s a negative, he said.
The study also was criticized as supporting all sides and thus supporting no sides.
“As I’ve read the report and heard the reactions to the report … it has sort of become this session’s version of a Rorschach test, where everyone can stare at the ink blot and see what they want to see,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
Pollock agreed that the report’s complexity allows people to support or refute their particular positions.
“There’s never going to be a simple thumbs up or thumbs down,” he said.
State Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said the study gives legislators little to latch onto, as they look to craft and pass a comprehensive gaming bill during the 2014 legislative session.
“It seems to me that the effects are almost so negligible that it’s going to be very difficult for us to drag something out of this to make a hard decision,” Gibbons said.
The study is still in draft form, though the final version was due Oct. 1. Spectrum decided to hold back on submitting the final report while it worked to correct and update numbers on the economic and fiscal impacts of expanded gaming. The final version should be out in November.
State Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, brought up the issue of “decoupling” — no longer requiring pari-mutuel facilities to run a minimum number of races to operate a card room.
She seemed to make a case for the move. She asked if there were any social costs to removing the racing minimums requirement. The Spectrum representative seemed baffled by the question and Young responded, laughing, “The right answer is no.”