A Florida Senate committee on gaming will take up the controversial issue of expanding casinos and gambling in the state at a hearing today in Tallahassee.
The hearing will include a discussion between elected officials and analysts from New Jersey-based consulting firm Spectrum Gaming Group, a firm with strong ties to the casino industry. The company was commissioned by lawmakers to compile a much-anticipated report on the impact of gambling on economic growth.
Flawed Gambling Study
But when a 460-plus page draft of the report was released last Tuesday, it was plagued by questions and labeled as "confusing" by some key legislators.
Initially, according to the draft report, it appeared that Spectrum found that an expansion of gambling in Florida would have only a moderate impact on economic activity, a finding which would have been a huge victory for anti-casino advocates, considering Spectrum's well known ties to the casino business.
"Overall, Spectrum believes that the expansion of casino gambling, whether on a small scale or very large scale, would have, at best, a moderately positive impact on the state economy," the draft said.
But Senate lawmakers asked that the report be returned to Spectrum, claiming the economic models that were used were unclear, and even appeared to contradict themselves.
The part of the draft report being called into question was subcontracted by Spectrum to a company called Regional Economic Models Inc (REMI).
Spectrum Gaming was unable to comment due to their contract with the state. Messages left with REMI and Miami's Genting office at Resorts World Miami were not returned. Spectrum has been granted a 30-day extension for the final report, which is now due on November 1.
The delay has rekindled a long-running debate about the benefits and drawbacks of letting gambling take root in Florida.
Life Without Casinos
In 1994, when John Sowinski began working with the Florida nonprofit No Casinos, he sat in a room known as the Knight Ridder Conference Room with a man named Alvah Chapman Jr.
Many locals will remember Chapman as the celebrated and longtime publisher of The Miami Herald. Fewer will know that the Knight Ridder Conference Room was in the now vacant building the newspaper once occupied in downtown Miami.
The irony that those meetings by No Casinos were held at One Herald Plaza is not lost on Sowinski, given that he is up against the likes of the Genting Group, a Malaysian developer that hopes to convert the vacant property into a mega casino.
And the fight is that old. No Casinos has been around off and on since 1978, fighting the incessant intrusion of the casino lobby. As Sowinski explains, “casino people always come offering their wares when the economy is bad and people are desperate.”
Now may be one of those times, with the goal of erecting a casino in downtown Miami seemingly enjoying a clearer path to fruition due to recent Florida Supreme Court decisions allowing lawmakers to make a decision on the issue without voter consent.
Company Under Scrutiny
So even though the report initially appears to be damning to the casinos' interests, the fight isn’t over. “If the legislature feels like no one is watching, they might just listen to the casino lobbyists," Sowinski said.
It's no secret that Spectrum has links to the casino industry. The firm finances casinos and casino related ventures through it's investment arm Spectrum Gaming Capital, which claims to offer, "strategic, finance, restructuring, operations and development advisory services focused exclusively on gaming, resorts and leisure."
Moreover, according to the Miami Herald, Spectrum was actually hired by the Genting company itself. No Casinos has raised questions about this apparent conflict of interest.
A series of town-hall style meetings or public workshops are planned so people can weigh in on the issue. The closest meeting to downtown Miami is being held Oct. 23 in Coconut Creek at 4 p.m.