December 2, 2023

Florida's Gambling History

Games of Chance

Florida has a long and often unsavory association with gambling.

Mike Vogel | 5/1/2006

Whether it's real estate speculation or wagering, "gambling is as deeply rooted in Florida as royal palms," says University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino. In the 1820s, Tallahassee visitor Ralph Waldo Emerson noted a passion for wagering on horses. One hundred years later, Tampa was a hotbed of bolita, the numbers racket with a Cuban flair. "This was probably one reason they were eager to sacrifice Ybor City to urban renewal," Mormino says. Al Capone and Meyer Lansky had Florida havens and Tampa-born Santo Trafficante Jr.'s mob influence spread to New York and Cuba.

In 1950, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver's crime committee paid Florida particular attention; Gov. Fuller Warren was tainted and several sheriffs were "drummed out of office" over gambling, Mormino says. More recently, SunCruz gambling boat entrepreneur Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis was murdered in 2001. Among his alleged killers is a man with reported ties to the Gambino crime family. And in the ongoing Washington scandal, lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding lenders in the SunCruz purchase.

Legal pari-mutuel wagering came to Florida in the Great Depression -- the same time Nevada legalized commercial gambling. The cash-strapped Florida Legislature allowed counties to decide for themselves on pari-mutuels but split the tax revenue statewide. The argument: South Florida vices would pave north Florida roads. It worked. The industry, a loser beginning in the 1970s at expanding statewide, returned to that southern strategy in 2004.

By 2004, casinos had won acceptance in new markets nationally. Forty-eight states had some form of gambling. In Florida, widespread gambling-related corruption and crime were history, and voters had approved statewide gambling in the form of the lottery in 1986, following a national lottery trend.

Gambling day-cruise ships were based along the peninsula from Fernandina Beach on the Georgia border to Port Richey north of Tampa. Bingo was statewide as was, illegally, internet gambling. The state's pari-mutuel industry was the largest nationally in number of facilities and the most diversified.

Meanwhile, video-bingo machines, or Class II gaming machines, at tribe casinos in five Florida counties had made the Seminoles and Miccosukees two of the wealthiest tribes. Florida, with $862 million in Indian gambling revenue, ranked ninth nationally in Indian gambling revenue in 2004, according to Alan Meister, author of the "Indian Gaming Industry Report" and an economist with Analysis Group. Overall, just on the strength of Indian casinos, Florida ranked 19th nationally in casino revenue.

Tags: Politics & Law, Around Florida, Government/Politics & Law

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