Slot machine vote could open door to rest of state

Published February 28, 2005

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Here's what South Florida could get if voters approve Amendment 4 next month: Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Here's what people in the Tampa Bay area could get if those South Florida voters approve Amendment 4: Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Although the slot machine question on the March 8 ballot is happening only in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the implications for the state are far-reaching, say people on both sides.

Under federal law, the seven tribal casinos in Florida can negotiate a deal with the state to operate slot machines if the measure passes.

That means if there are slots in Broward and Dade, the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa and other tribal casinos could get them, too.

"It will creep to the whole state," predicts Max Osceola, member of the Seminole Tribal Council.

The slots are limited to existing parimutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade, and some fear that Florida's other parimutuels will clamor for the machines some day.

Proponents say children statewide will benefit from the $400-million a year that slots will generate for education.

But Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who opposes expanded gambling, doubts the education benefits will be that great and worries about a "snowball effect" in the rest of the state.

"Florida stands at the cusp," Bush wrote in a recent letter to the Christian Coalition. "As a state we have limited gambling in our communities. The true costs are significant and real: long-term decay of our traditional industries and the social fabric of our communities."

By a 51 percent margin, Florida voters in November agreed to amend the state Constitution to allow slots at existing parimutuel facilities - dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons - in Miami-Dade and Broward counties if local voters approve.

Both counties placed those questions on the March 8 ballot, and early voting began last week. Anti-slot groups, from the Christian Coalition to animal rights organizations, have fervently passed out flyers. Pro-slot groups, backed by the gambling industry, have planted signs all over South Florida and spent nearly $3-million campaigning.

Passage is widely expected. Five racetracks and two jai-alai frontons would benefit.

Derby Lane, the greyhound track in St. Petersburg, is taking a wait-and-see attitude, said spokeswoman Vera Filipelli.

The track's biggest concern is losing customers to South Florida tracks.

"We have a lot up here that we already contend with - the Indian casino in Tampa, professional sports, we're already contending with all these other factors, and this could also take away the tourists," she said.

It's too early to say whether the track would support a similar ballot question for voters in Pinellas County, Filipelli said. "We won't know what it entails until the Legislature acts," she said.

The Legislature will determine how many slot machines are allowed, hours of operation, how much the gambling is taxed and how the revenue is distributed. Under the amendment, any tax revenue the state collects must go to schools statewide.

That resonated with voters.

"I want to make sure the children get the help," said Millie Finkelstein, 74, who voted in Hollywood last week. "I don't gamble, but I voted for it. Maybe they'll get better teachers to help the children."

House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, said legislators have taken more than 10 hours of testimony on the issue. Bense, who opposes expanded gambling, is in no hurry to pass legislation.

"That issue has a long way to go," he said. "We're going to take our time."

After all, if voters in Broward and Miami-Dade say no to slots, the Legislature won't have to do anything.

Bense said he favors repealing the amendment.

If voters approve the measure, the Seminole Tribe won't automatically install slots in other casinos, but said it is something under consideration.

Although the tribe spent $5.6-million opposing the amendment in November, since it creates new competition, it is "going with the flow" and not taking sides in the local referenda, Osceola said.

The tribe's casinos are not taxed by the state. That could change if the state enters an agreement with the tribe to authorize slot machines. The tribe's casinos have machines similar to Vegas-style slots but mimic bingo and pay out in paper receipts that are then converted to cash.

The Miccosukee Tribe, which runs a casino west of Miami, wants to negotiate with the state about placing Vegas-style slots in their casino. The governor's lawyers are reviewing the request.

On Friday, voters trickled into the early voting site at the Broward County Courthouse in Hollywood. A smattering of signs declaring "YES SLOTS" stood near a couple of local politicians doing some last-minute campaigning. No area in South Florida is more inundated with existing gambling facilities than Hollywood; within 10 miles of the polling place, there are six places for people to gamble, including the Sun Cruz casino ship that docks in Hollywood.

Despite the six-page ballot in Broward County, most voters turned out for the slot machine issue.

"I am basically against gambling," explained Teddie Buchanan of Dania Beach. "But we might as well have the money from the casinos so we can have access to it in our government. People are going to gamble in those places anyway."

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, a vocal opponent of slots, expressed grave concerns over the slots and their ill effects on people with gambling addictions, not to mention the burden on roads, police and social services.

"It's a horrible deal," he said. "We get the burden, but the whole state gets the benefits."

Naugle points to his county's thriving economy and low unemployment rate as proof that Broward doesn't need slots to draw tourists.

Vera Kelly of Dania Beach voted against the slot machine amendment Friday, but only because she doesn't want more traffic in her small city, which has a jai alai fronton. "I just don't feel like Dania Beach is the place for it," she said. "If anyone else wants it in their city, they can vote for it."

--Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com