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Losing life to gambling

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- During a visit to Tampa last week, as a friend and I were walking to a neighborhood restaurant, she pointed out the spot under the LeRoy Selmon Expressway where Harry Lee Coe, the state attorney of Hillsborough County, shot himself last July.

What despair, what hopelessness, would drive someone who had been his community's best known and perhaps most popular politician to destroy himself in so lonely a way? Seeing the scene drove home that point more than all the words I had read at the time.

It also reminded me of some unfinished business concerning the gambling compulsion that drove this former judge, this chief prosecutor, to raid his campaign fund, borrow heavily from employees, write worthless checks and conspire to destroy public records. The governor having ordered an investigation, Coe was bound for certain disgrace, if not also for prison, when he put that pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

In the previous 15 months he had written more than $500,000 in checks to the Tampa and St. Petersburg dog tracks. He died still owing them $47,000 for checks that had bounced and was in debt overall by some $250,000.

He was as fatally addicted -- to gambling -- as any of the substance abusers he had prosecuted. One expert quoted by the Times put it this way: Coe "shot money like drug addicts shoot heroin."

Did the dog tracks know it? Of course they knew it. Did they care? Not in any way that would suggest they were run by human beings. Coe's obsession was their asset, and you don't cut off such a valuable asset by blowing the whistle on his bad checks.

Investigators would not take surprise at that. Every gambling facility exploits addicts like Coe, and there are a lot of them to exploit. Florida has an estimated 400,000 compulsive gamblers, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling reports on its Web site that it receives more than 600 calls a month on its problem gambling help line. One in five compulsive gamblers report having attempted suicide.

Let us now recall how a spokeswoman for one of the tracks disclaimed any responsibility for what had happened to their good customer, Coe.

"It's not like we're kidnapping people at gunpoint and stealing their PIN numbers," she said. "People come here of their own free will."

It sounded as if the pari-mutuels and tobacco industry study ethics with the same teachers.

If there are still legislators (or legislative candidates) whose consciences are bothered by things like this, they should think about prohibiting the tracks from extending credit. An alternative would be to make all gambling debts legally invalid and thereby uncollectible. The present unenforceability law exempts "wagering on pari-mutuels or any gambling transaction expressly authorized by law." How convenient.

Given how easily easy credit can feed a gambling addiction, public policy ought to prohibit it. Given how much the tracks spend on lobbyists and campaign contributions, public policy will of course not prohibit it.

But even lobbying has its limits, which continue to fall short of persuading the Legislature to allow slot machines at the race tracks. Hence the current campaign, financed largely by some South Florida dog tracks, for an initiative that would allow slot machines at currently licensed pari-mutuel facilities subject to local referendums.

If this gets on the ballot -- which it should not -- it would be the fourth time since 1978 that would-be commercial gamblers have forced a vote on whether to sleaze up the Constitution for the sake of their boundless greed. Each of the three previous initiatives failed hugely, but the margin was smaller each time.

The Florida Supreme Court on Oct. 1 will hear arguments why this should or not be allowed on the ballot, presuming sponsors get enough signatures. The latter part is not in doubt because experience teaches that you can get any initiative on the ballot if you pay enough people enough money to solicit signatures. But Attorney General Bob Butterworth has laid out some pretty strong reasons why the court should say no.

The strongest of them is this: The initiative orders the Legislature to provide for taxing slot machines even if fewer than two-thirds of the voters approve the initiative. A 1996 anti-tax initiative happens to require a two-thirds vote for any constitutional amendment imposing a new tax or fee. That the slot machine initiative does not specify the amount of the tax seems to me, as to Butterworth, to be a distinction without a difference. The initiative is defective on its face, and the ballot summary, Butterworth concludes, is misleading.

Should the court disagree, we, the voters, will have to kill it. The pari-mutuels will beg us that they need slots to survive.

But for what? All the tracks in Florida are not worth the life of a single human being. Harry Coe was doubtless not the first. If only he could be the last.

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