Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Don’t Bet On It

Voters in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties here in South Florida get a chance to go to the polls today to vote on whether or not Vegas-style slot machines will be allowed in race tracks and jai-alai frontons. (For those of you outside of Florida, jai-alai – pronounced high-lie – is a game that looks like a mix of lacrosse and racquetball, played in a cage called a fronton. People bet on the players.) The proposal to allow the vote was approved last November, and if it passes today proponents say it will bring millions of dollars in to the state education budget.

The gaming industry has promised to devote hundreds of millions of dollars each year from their slots revenue to the state’s education budget, and pay millions more to the governments of the counties where the slots would be installed, if either measure passes.

Opponents argue that slot machines would siphon money from other entertainment venues, hurting existing businesses. Critics also say that tax revenue from the slots could be eclipsed by social costs associated with problem gamblers, including increased crime and more personal bankruptcy filings.

Should the measure pass in either county, terms of the deal — including how much the racetracks would pay in taxes and how that money would be spent — will be hammered out by lawmakers in Tallahassee. [Miami Herald]

I plan to vote against it. Not that I am opposed to gambling; I’ve been to a few casinos in my time, mostly in northern Michigan and New Mexico where they’re on Indian reservations, and I’ve donated my share of money to them. I have seen the good that they’ve done for their communities – Peshawbestown, Michigan, for example, went from a poverty-stricken slum to a vibrant town with full employment thanks to the casino built by the Ottawa/Chippewa band. I don’t have a moral problem with gambling any more than I do with drinking; it’s not harmful if it’s done in moderation. (Full disclosure: after seeing my share of friends and family go through rehab, I haven’t had a drink since 1992.) My problem with this proposal in Florida today is that there is no guarantee that the money they say it will generate will end up where they promise it will go and in the amounts that they predict it will bring in.

Proponents say the slots could bring in as much as $500 million a year for the state education budget. That sounds great until you realize that it would be spread over the 67 counties of Florida, bringing Miami-Dade’s cut — assuming it’s spread equally — to $7.46 million. That’s a rounding error in the $6 billion Miami-Dade County Public School budget, and there’s no guarantee that it would be spread equally. Notice that line about “terms of the deal — including how much the racetracks would pay in taxes and how that money would be spent — will be hammered out by lawmakers in Tallahassee.” We’ve heard that before; when they set up the Florida Lottery the idea was that the money would go to education. But when the laws were written, lottery income was used to supplant state funding, not supplement it, and none of it went to primary and secondary education. In addition, the legislature has recently shown itself to be hostile to South Florida and the needs of education here. Last year they rammed through a revision to the state’s district cost differential (DCD), the formula used to determine the amount of money sent to a county for the schools based on the cost of living. Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, home of Miami and Fort Lauderdale respectively, have the highest costs of living in the state and also have the largest number of schools in crisis both in terms of infrastructure and test scores. Yet Republican House Speaker Johnnie Bird saw fit to refigure the DCD so that South Florida got less money per student and other, smaller counties, got more. That would include Duval County, home of Jacksonville. Oh, did I happen to mention where Johnnie Bird is from? You guessed it.

If the deal was that all of the money generated by the slots in Miami-Dade or Broward County stayed in South Florida, I’d be all for it. If the rest of the state wants to make money off gambling, let them set up their own casinos. Until then, I say the idea is full of crap, and no dice.