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    A Times Editorial

    No new gambling

    Instead of adding new gambling, Florida should find better ways to generate tax money and reinforce laws over the gambling that's currently unregulated.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 23, 2002

    Necessity is supposed to be the mother of invention, not of vice. Unfortunately, that distinction seems to be lost on Gov. Jeb Bush and certain legislators who are making altogether too nice over the notion that an onrushing budget crisis calls for slot machines in Florida's future. For citizens who think otherwise, the time to cry "'No!" is now, before the scheme grows any more legs.

    The parimutuel industry has been angling to legalize electronic slot machines -- under the euphemism of "video lottery" -- as a monopoly for its dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons. Bush's objection to any extension of gambling stopped this last session. The governor's tone has mellowed, however, in the face of the class-size initiative and other budget pressures. Now, while a slot-machine bill is "something I probably would not look forward to seeing," Bush says that "all the policymakers in Tallahassee need to call time out and let people be exposed to all ideas." Though House Speaker Johnnie Byrd has issued a statement opposing expanded gambling -- "I believe that we should build a better Florida based on the strengths of people and not their weaknesses," he said -- Byrd's staff says he is willing to let the bill be heard. That's fair enough, but only if it means he will be as open-minded to tax reform.

    Senate President Jim King, an old ally of the parimutuels, has told colleagues he expects the Senate to pass their bill this year. To his credit, he has also said that new taxes need to be on the table, too. But gambling is the one card that does not belong there in the first place. Florida voters have made that point by emphatically defeating three casino gambling initiatives. The most recent, in 1994, was sponsored by the parimutuels, whose drive for another this year was barred from the ballot by the Supreme Court. However, the gambling lobby still has IOUs on the other branches of government in the form of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

    Whatever money the state might net from electronic slot machines -- estimates range from $600-million to an improbable $1-billion a year -- is simply not worth it, especially when even more money is available to any legislature that has the courage to go after skybox rentals and other sales tax loopholes. Furthermore, any net gain from slot machines would be erased by their inevitable moral and financial impacts on society. Electronic slots have been labeled "the crack cocaine of gambling." Unlike a horse race or a legitimate lottery, the action is nonstop. The visual effects are hypnotic. One South Carolina woman was so mesmerized playing the slots that she forgot about the 10-day old daughter she had left in her car . . . in August. Reacting to this and other tragedies, South Carolina got rid of the infernal machines.

    Florida's parimutuels, whose natural clientele is aging, have just one plausible claim to the Legislature's sympathy: their unregulated competition from Indian casinos, Internet gambling and cruise boats. Two of those factors are beyond the state's reach, but it would take only a one-sentence law to get rid of the cruises to nowhere. Perhaps this is what Byrd had in mind in saying that he "would support the strengthening of our existing parimutuel industries by better enforcement of the laws regarding unregulated gambling . . ."

    By all means, that is the one thing Florida should do. What it should not do is to conclude that the remedy for too much gambling is to have even more of it.

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