A Florida tug of war over gambling

Slot machines have become a flash point in debate on gambling's expansion nationwide.

With a booming economy, shrinking unemployment, and fast-rising property prices, Florida hardly fits the description of a destitute state desperately in need of a $500 million windfall from the legalization of Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Yet many of the arguments used to push through gambling laws in the depressed states of America's Bust Belt in recent years are being presented to voters in southern Florida as they go to the polls Tuesday to settle what has become a highly contentious debate.

The owners of seven racetracks and jai-alai frontons in heavily populated Miami-Dade and Broward counties want to install 10,000 slot machines on their premises. They say the move will create more than 18,000 jobs and provide a $500 million boost to the state's education budget.

Supporters have spent $2.7 million promoting the "Yes to Better Schools and Jobs" initiative that plays up the predicted economic advantage of increased tax revenues and makes no mention that it is actually a vote to approve gambling.

The equally vocal opposing lobby, a broad and unorthodox coalition of the Christian right, Seminole and Miccosukee tribes who already run casinos on reservation lands, and the owners of several offshore gambling cruise boats, say the figures don't add up. They contain "false statements, distortions, and misrepresentations," according to the group's political consultant, Dan Lewis.

Critics have a powerful ally in Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who has said he might make last-minute radio and TV appearances to rally opposition to the proposal. "The sad fact is there are a lot of people that have a vested interest in it passing because they think they're going to make a ton of money," said Mr. Bush, who retains a home in Miami and thus can cast a private vote. "But I think we can organize a little guerrilla effort at least to bring up people's level of understanding of what this is about."

The vote in south Florida is being closely watched across the country. Slot machines have become a main flash point in the fight over expanding legalized gambling. Moreover, the region is not only heavily populated and important economically. It also embraces two fundamental values - a pro-business ethos and a Bible Belt mentality - that are often at odds over the proposal. Thus the vote here will provide a litmus test of where public opinion stands on the issue.

Lately, the slot-machine movement has been gaining. In Pennsylvania last year, voters were persuaded that millions of dollars from gambling taxes would pour into state coffers. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell (D) told voters that slot machines were "the only plausible vehicle" for the property tax relief that the state desperately needed. He predicted up to $1 billion could be raised annually from a 34 per cent tax on gambling revenue from 14 slot parlors across the state.

Earlier slots campaigns were successful using similar arguments in Delaware and West Virginia. In all, slot machines have now been approved for use off Indian reservations in 36 states.

While advocates of the machines in south Florida are using the fiscal rationale, its economy is different from that of some of the other states that have approved slots. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate has remained largely static at 5.6 percent since last August, while Florida's has fallen to 4.5 per cent with an extra 10,000 people in work since last summer's hurricanes.

Largely because of rebounds in tourism and the citrus industry, Florida is in much better financial shape, according to Governor Bush. He reported earlier this month that his proposed $61.6 billion state budget for 2005-2006 contained $3.5 billion in cash reserves, "which probably puts us in a position unlike any other state in the country," he said.

Experts say such a financial luxury could lead voters to question whether they are prepared to accept the spread of gambling and its impact on communities in return for a "windfall" that doesn't fulfill any critical need and which would be funded to a degree by those who could least afford it. Various universities' research projects in recent years have claimed that personal bankruptcies, crime, and drugs use are higher in areas that have casinos.

"They should be asking themselves if the slots industry needs Florida more than Florida needs slots," says Earl Grinols, an economics professor at the University of Illinois. "The answer is pretty obvious. Florida is a major tourist state with lots of natural attractions and places such as Disney World. By putting slots into the state, you would simply be diverting money from the usual destinations into gambling."

If the vote is approved on Tuesday, the state legislature must then decide the details, including the percentage of tax that will be levied and how the money will be distributed. Some critics, meanwhile, fear that allowing slots could lead to the approval of casinos on state land, a measure rejected three times in the past by Florida voters. "Florida has already voted down casinos but this keeps coming back," says Dr. Grinols. "It's like Dracula. You can never get the wooden stake through the heart."

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