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Casinos play another card

Published November 30, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Another casino gambling initiative is ripe for consideration by the Florida Supreme Court. Too ripe, if you ask me. This one smells just as putrid as the last proposal the court threw off the ballot, and deserves the same fate.

The issue in this one, on which the court will hear arguments Tuesday, is the latest wrinkle in the parimutuel lobby's long campaign for a slot machine monopoly.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, Miami-Dade and Broward counties could decide by local referendum whether to allow slot machines at dog tracks, horse tracks and jai alai frontons. In the event they did, the Legislature would be required to pass implementing legislation. If in that process the Legislature should choose to tax the revenue, says the amendment, "any such taxes must supplement public education funding statewide."

Right there, on the face of it, are at least two subjects. The Constitution allows an initiative to present just one. The first subject is whether to let those two counties pollute themselves with slot machines. The second is whether any state revenue that results must be earmarked to education.

This particular proposition is an invitation to a hoax. It says that the Legislature "may tax" slot machine revenues, but nothing in the text says that it would have to. Only if it chooses to would the tax be earmarked to education.

It is not a sure thing that the Legislature would even opt for a tax, or that if it did, that the tax would amount to very much. The parimutuels have dozens of the best lobbyists and a lot of friends in the Legislature. If it weren't for Gov. Jeb's threatened veto, they would already have their slot machines.

There are also gross ambiguities in the proposition. The term "slot machine" is left undefined. Does it mean the traditional, mechanical one-armed bandits? Or does it also allow (as you can bet the sponsors mean it to) the electronic "video lottery terminals" that are called the crack cocaine of gambling?

And just what is "supplement" supposed to mean? Experience, the remorseless teacher, suggests how that would come out. The Legislature would make a fine show of adding the new money to the education budget for a year or two. Then it would start shipping the money out the back door, just as it did with the windfalls resulting from the 1986 lottery initiative.

The weaselly language in this scheme is intended to fool the Supreme Court into distinguishing it from one that it threw off the ballot because it combined slot machines with a requirement for a tax. Ergo, two subjects. This was the mistake that the sponsors of the lottery had avoided by not specifying how the money would be spent.

This new initiative would have been a safer bet with the court had it said nothing at all about taxation. But the sponsors obviously thought they needed that as bait for signatures on their petitions and for "yes" votes at the polls, if the sleazy scheme gets that far.

The attorney general's request for the court's decision - triggered when the sponsors presented 80,000 valid signatures, almost twice the required threshold - did not take a clear position on the single-subject issue, but seemed to be leaning toward the parimutuels' point of view. That left the burden to be carried by No Casinos Inc., and three animal welfare organizations that would like to see the dog tracks keep their implied threat to go out of business if they can't have slots.

As these opponents pointed out in their brief for the court, the tax issue "is a "sugar-coated pill' attached to the amendment to persuade Floridians not living in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to vote for slot machines on the theory that they might receive some of the benefits resulting therefrom but none of the detriments."

This is, of course, exactly the sort of logrolling that the initiative process was supposed to prevent. This would be a good time as any - some would say it's long past time - for the Supreme Court to draw a bright line.

Regrettably, the court's precedents have been so inconsistent that it is impossible to predict what will and what will not get by.

Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court famously remarked that while he could not define obscenity, he knew it when he saw it. The Florida Supreme Court should apply that logic Tuesday. If this newest casino scheme isn't obscene, nothing is.

This is yet another example of an initiative that - like pregnant pigs, high-speed rail and three previous unsuccessful casino ventures - has no business in the Constitution regardless of merit. Yet it's the farthest along of the 50 so-called "active" initiatives that some legislators and business lobbies are so suddenly in a snit about. The simple explanation is money: The parimutuels and some allied Mississippi gambling ventures have spent more than $1.7-million in the last three years, and that's small change compared to what they'll spend, for signatures and advertising, if the Supreme Court lets them proceed. It's a pity there's not a market for ideas that do belong in the Constitution, such as election and districting reform.

[Last modified November 30, 2003, 01:16:37]

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