A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2002
In the classics, necessity is described as the mother of virtue, not of vice. Some Florida legislators have that backward. In the guise of helping education they are touting slot machines, which Florida needs like another anthrax attack.
Slot machine bills are likely soon to reach the House and Senate floors for the first time since the Great Depression.
Pressured heavily by Gov. David Sholtz, the 1935 Legislature legalized slots in counties willing to accept them by referendum. LeRoy Collins, a freshman representative destined to become Florida's greatest governor, led the fight against slots that year and the successful battle to outlaw them in 1937.
In the intervening election, wrote Allen Morris, a capital journalist who later became clerk and historian to the House, "Revulsion from slot machines caused the electorate to clean out the House. . ." When it convened in 1937, 70 of the 96 members were new.
Old-age pensions were the pretext. This time it is education. Now, as then, the real reason is to enrich people whose scruples are so evanescent that they are indifferent to the inevitable moral rot and human toll. They comprise an opportunistic coalition of race tracks -- notably heavy campaign contributors -- which would have a monopoly on the slots; gambling companies that would provide the equipment; and dog and horse-breeders who have been promised a cut off the top.
The scheme is to call it a "video lottery" and put it under the management of the Department of the Lottery, which has a decent public image. No cheap verbal cologne can disguise the putrid product. These are the same infernal electronic devices, often referred to as the "crack cocaine of gambling," of which nauseated South Carolinians recently rid themselves. Unlike the 1935 venture, this allows no local referendums. What's more, it bars localities from changing zoning laws to keep slots out.
Two similar bills (SB 1298 by Sen. Steven Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, and SB 1236 by Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami) are on Wednesday's agenda of the House Regulated Industries Committee. The word in the Capitol is that they will be approved. Even more ominously, both Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney have signaled that they will not use their influence against the slots. Senate Majority Leader (and president-designate) Jim King, R-Jacksonville, is a key supporter.
Though Feeney's spokeswoman said he is "not personally in favor," House budget-writers reportedly are banking on some $600-million in slot machine revenue to counter the Senate's emerging proposal for that much in increased local property taxes for schools.
Has cynicism become Tallahassee's bottomless well? In no sense are slot machines the moral or economic equal of an honest tax. As governor, Collins spoke eloquently to the disparity in a 1959 article he wrote for Parade:
"Gambling, legal or illegal, spreads poison through a community. It is insidious. It kills more business than it generates. It encourages public corruption and undermines the faith of citizens in their officials. Worst of all it saps moral strength and character."
Sens. Victor Crist of Tampa, Tom Lee of Brandon and Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor sit on the Regulated Industries Committee. Senate committees don't like to vote bills down, but this is one time that the welfare of Florida demands that they do.