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    Senate okays scratch-off bingo

    Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Gov. Jeb Bush say the measure flouts the state Constitution and exposes charities to victimization.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 28, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Despite strong opposition from Gov. Jeb Bush and Attorney General Bob Butterworth, the Senate on Wednesday endorsed a new form of gambling: scratch-off bingo tickets with instant winners.

    The bill, which now goes to the House, allows charities, veterans groups and religious organizations to sell the instant tickets on the same two days a week they sponsor bingo games. Current law already specifies that 65 percent of the proceeds must go for prizes and the rest to the sponsoring charity after "actual business expenses" are paid.

    Veterans have long pushed for the bill with Frank Mirabella, a lobbyist for the Association of Florida Bingos. Mirabella says such "charitable pull-tabs" are legal in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

    The bill sponsor, Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, rejected complaints that he's trying to make it easier to gamble. He ticked off the state-run lottery's instant games including Fantasy 5, Lotto, Cash 3 and Play 4.

    "I don't know what is a bigger expansion of gambling than the Florida Lottery itself," Silver said.

    In the end, the debate might not matter.

    Bush, who can veto any bill passed by the Legislature, wrote to lawmakers Feb. 5 to emphasize his "strong opposition" to instant bingo tickets.

    Bush, citing a 1995 report by the statewide grand jury, said some bingo operators have flouted state law "and diverted revenues from these legitimate organizations." Allowing the sale of scratch-off tickets, Bush wrote, "offers the wrong solution and may further expose them to possible victimization."

    Butterworth issued an opinion saying instant bingo scratch-off tickets are not bingo but a lottery and violate the state Constitution, which authorizes only a state-run lottery.

    "I'm telling you, what we are doing here is unconstitutional," argued Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua. "We would be passing a bill our own attorney general says is unenforceable."

    The vote was 23-12. Four area senators -- Republicans Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville, Victor Crist of Tampa, and Jim Sebesta of St. Petersburg, and Democrat Les Miller of Tampa -- voted to legalize scratch-off bingo tickets. Three other Republicans -- Anna Cowin of Leesburg, Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor and Don Sullivan of St. Petersburg -- voted no. Brandon Republican Tom Lee did not vote.

    Supporters, such as Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, wrapped pro-bingo arguments in the flag, saying disabled war veterans would benefit from the new game.

    "We're not talking about Mr. Gangster," Meek said in describing who would benefit from instant bingos. "We're talking about your Vietnam vets, your disabled vets, your Elks ... we're talking about the pillars of the community."

    The vote came just days after Florida's first statewide gambling survey found that Floridians are about twice as likely as people nationwide to be problem or compulsive gamblers or at risk of becoming problem gamblers.

    Two senators running for attorney general took opposite stands on the issue. Republican Locke Burt of Ormond Beach voted yes; Democrat Buddy Dyer of Orlando voted no.

    Silver unleashed a verbal attack on Butterworth, accusing his fellow Democrat of half-truths' and bias by urging a negative vote. Butterworth's office has been aggressively lobbying to defeat Silver's bill.

    "The attorney general's opinion carries almost no weight whatsoever," Silver said.

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