Legalized gambling in the cards?

Can you imagine it?

Visitors step off of airplanes at Tampa International Airport and are, in minutes, on a bus heading down Dale Mabry Highway.

“On your right,” the bus driver says, “is beautiful Raymond James Stadium. On your left is the MGM Grand. Our next stop will serve the Luxor and the Belagio.”

Las Vegas-style hotel and casinos seem far from reality in Florida. And for years, talk of such a thing was always quickly snuffed out. But, during the past week, the thought of some sort of gambling upgrade in Florida has been tossed about more freely than usual in the media. Could Florida become the next New Jersey or Nevada?

Well, for there to be full-scale gambling as in other states, it would take legislation and a constitutional amendment approved by voters. The idea that has been more readily considered is extending slot gambling. A move for full-scale casinos is probably just a distant flicker.

But the reason that legislators have even considered extending gambling is that voters passed Amendment 9 on Nov. 5. Now part of the state constitution, the amendment has outwardly all the trappings of a wonderful idea, a rule saying that all state public school classes must be held to a certain number of students.

The amendment’s dirty little problem, however, is its price tag, which has been estimated as anywhere between $5 billion and $29 billion.

Simply put, state lawmakers seem to have no idea where this money will come from. In fact, universities across the state and other government operations have, in the last year and a half, had to undergo round after round of budget cuts. During campaigning for the Nov. 5 election, it was even reported that another round of cuts may come next summer.

And so, a soft whisper has begun about the viability of increased gambling as an option. After all, it is gambling that took a tiny desert crossroads town and turned it into the world’s adult playground. More importantly, it is gambling that has pumped millions upon millions of dollars into a mostly remote state.

Gambling also turned a seaside New Jersey town into a nearby gaming getaway for those from New York and Philadelphia. Millions of people each year come from the cities and leave their money for their grateful neighbors in Atlantic City.

Florida will more than likely not act to that extreme. At least not in the immediate future.

But, residents may be able to envision for a brief moment how Florida would be affected by fully legalized gambling.

There is one thing that is obvious in this state: gambling is a vice that is in demand.

The Florida Lottery is the prime example of legalized gambling in the state. Popular enough to be nightly news, the lottery was begun with the idea of raising funds to pay for education. Proceeds were used to fund Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program. But trouble in the program has led to scaling back, and Florida has been lapped by the more successful Georgia State Lottery.

Also popular in Florida are the numerous greyhound and Jai Alai stadiums scattered throughout the state. It is there that legislators have considered sticking their video slot machines.

But, the popularity of true casino gambling can be seen by the numerous casino boat cruises that sail from ports all around the peninsula. These cruises sail for an evening three miles from shore into international waters, open their casinos and watch the money flow.

Onshore, casino gambling has been popular on Indian reservations. In Tampa, the Seminole Indian Casino regularly does a strong business.

In addition, there have been reports for years of illegal gaming parlors throughout the state.

So what would happen to Florida if full-scale gambling were allowed?

Well, one sure bet is that companies like Disney and Universal Studios would probably not be particularly happy with the development. Florida, unlike Nevada, is known as the world’s family playground. Gambling, inherently, brings with it the mix of other carnal adult pleasures. Florida might not be so family-friendly anymore.

Not to mention, visitors may no longer come for the beaches or parks. They may, as in Las Vegas, come strictly to gamble.

But, for the average rank and file worker in the state, gambling may bring a nice mix. The jobs will come. Tourism, which has sagged a bit in recent years, will certainly receive a jolt. People will leave their money, maybe enough money to rescue a failing education system.

Drawbacks, however, will probably emerge. Florida is thought of now as a state of mostly blue-collar workers, with less high-paying jobs or opportunities. That stigma will probably grow with the onset of gambling.

In addition, longtime residents for whom gambling was a “behind-closed-doors” vice will see a change. No longer will it take place on ships or on isolated Indian reservations, but it will happen directly in Florida’s collective backyard. When Las Vegas blossomed in the 1950s, it grew up largely from nothing. Florida in 2002 is a different world and a different place.

Las Vegas and Atlantic City have both been renowned for being controlled by huge corporations as well as the underworld. Should gambling arrive, both could flourish in Florida, and bring with them their problems.

The final possible effect may be on the entire United States economic structure. There have been some linked directly to the gambling community that have said a Florida state move to fully legalize gambling would destroy Las Vegas.

That may seem extreme, but would northeasterners who have kept the desert alive by flying west prefer a shorter flight south to a tropical, sun-and-fun climate? It’s hard to say, but it is a possibility.

Would a gambling Florida kill off cruises, both evening and to the Caribbean, that rely on the casino draw? Maybe not, but a lot of jobs are at stake.

Maybe most importantly, would Disney, a corporation that has its fingers in many business and media pots throughout the country, suffer from gambling’s influence? Or would it adapt to the change and reap some of the benefits?

It is difficult to speculate on any of those questions. Should the gambling whispers turn into shouts, however, Florida will be faced with some tough choices. A legalized Florida is full of unknowns.

For now, however, it looks as if lawmakers want to keep their talk to a plan to increase slot machines. But, as money runs tighter and tighter, maybe Florida will decide to roll the dice.