Wanted: Political champions for poker

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As we move from primary elections to the general election, it’s worth looking back on how gambling as an issue is fairing in some of the southern states. Before a brief analysis, keep in mind that in Alabama and Florida, gambling expansions have led to more than 10,000 direct jobs, many of them being filled during the Great Recession. But for the war between the bingo operators and Alabama’s governor, many of these jobs would still be in Alabama and the casinos would be in expansion mode.

Let’s just say gambling isn’t a popular issue with the politicians or with the voters in The South. Despite the tax revenues and jobs, candidates for office nearly everywhere but in South Florida flee from the issue. Case in point: Georgia’s Republican nominee for governor Nathan Deal was asked his opinion about bringing horse racing to Georgia.

The economic backdrop is nearly $1 billion in potential economic development and more than 20,000 direct jobs to support the industry. For a rural state where equestrian pursuits are ingrained and backwoods racetracks that cater to illegal horseracing are prevalent, his answer of being “open-minded” to the discussion seems to be based in political pragmatism and common sense.

However, to the conservative wing of the party that nominated him, it was a sacrilege. Criticism was instant and he began the political two-step retreating from his comments like a scalded dog.

In Florida, Republicans from Citrus County “unelected” an incumbent, Rep. Ron Schultz, who shared the same pragmatism as Mr. Deal from Georgia. Dave Aronberg (Democrat) and Holly Benson (Republican), who I featured a couple of months ago for their knowledge of the gambling industry, lost their party nominations for attorney general.

As we approach November’s general election and look ahead to 2012, the industry needs to find some champions who will unapologetically trumpet the value of a vibrant, well-regulated gambling industry. The industry has provided stable growth and well-paying jobs often in communities that desperately need them. The tax revenue, direct and indirect, is significant as are the tangential benefits.

The socio-economic costs often trotted out by conservatives in sound bites have never been proved in economies in which a mature state lottery has preyed upon the citizenry for years. While I agree with the political sentiment that you can’t balance a budget on the backs of gambling (one need only look at Nevada and California to see that point being made clearly), a well-regulated industry can provide a nice supplement to a state’s economy.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi must laugh every day over breakfast as he reads the morning news of southern states whose philosophy on gambling is still based on Prohibition-era fears. And, as he laughs, citizens from Alabama, Florida and Georgia help keep his tax coffers full.

WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH POKER: Shifting gears a bit, we are three months into the “Great Expansion” in Florida poker rooms. Extended hours and the removal of betting limits were supposed to change our poker rooms into places where real gamblers lurked nightly. A quick look paints a pretty clear picture, the strong rooms are getting stronger and the weak rooms are continuing to slide.

In the Tampa market, rooms are struggling a bit in the shadow of the Tampa Hard Rock. Tampa Bay Downs is the one bright spot showing 20-plus-percent growth while the other rooms try to maintain their market share.

Around the state, rooms that have been in decline continue to do so. Jefferson County, Hamilton and Ft. Pierce are having a tough go of it with regional competitors hurting their ability to take advantage of the new laws.

In South Florida, the extended hours have been a boom for Gulfstream Park, which is leading the state in terms of its growth, up 43 percent over the same period last year. Dania, Calder, Miami and Mardi Gras are struggling to compete under the new laws as players appear to be looking elsewhere for big games.

The next several months as Florida moves through the winter tourist season will be interesting to watch to see how much growth is seen in its poker rooms. If some rooms continue to decline, some level of consolidation may be in the works.

On the flip side, if they reverse the trend, new opportunities for players may begin to pop up around the state. In the meantime, if you have a favorite room make sure you’re supporting it and bring a friend next time to get in on the action.

— Marc W. Dunbar is a shareholder with Tallahassee law firm Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, P.A. He represents several gaming clients before the Florida Legislature and teaches gambling and parimutuel law at the Florida State University College of Law.