Teachers union supports referendum on slot machines
By Sherri C. Ranta
United Teachers of Dade supports next month's referendum to allow slot machines at parimutuel facilities and tax them for education funding, but the Miami-Dade County School Board has taken no position.
Chairman Frank Bolaños said he doesn't expect the school board to consider the issue before a March 8 vote in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. He said he isn't taking a position but that if voters allow slot machines at Miami-Dade's three dog- and horse-racing and jai alai facilities, there should be guarantees that funds would go to public education, a position shared by the Broward County School Board in published reports.
"I do think that from what I read in the paper, the Broward school board sends a clear message that the funding part is extremely important," he said. "If they are using the children as the campaign (message), that piece of it needs to be ironclad."
The Legislature could vote to send as much as 30% of slot revenues - an estimated $438 million in the first year - to school districts statewide, according to published reports. All the money would come from dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Mr. Bolaños said he does not want to take a personal stance out of respect for the entire board. "We would discuss it if someone felt strongly enough about the issue and if someone would bring it up as an agenda item," he said.
District officials say the matter is not listed on the agenda for the Feb. 16 school board meeting but members could bring up the matter as new business. That is the last meeting scheduled before the March 8 vote.
Board Vice Chairman Robert Ingram, a retired Miami police officer and former Opa-locka police chief, said he will not bring the matter to the board. Slots, he said, would cost the community more in social ills, crime and gambling addictions than what a tax could bring to the schools.
"When they talk about the financial benefits, it doesn't necessarily translate into social benefits," he said. "Oftentimes, folks don't look at the impact it has on the families."
Board member Marta Perez said she hasn't been approached about the matter. She also cited social problems that accompany gambling. "In a few communities where it's been beneficial, it's helped, but in so many others it hasn't done much for the communities. I would probably be reluctant to support it."
United Teachers of Dade supports the referendum as a needed revenue source for education, said Mark Richards, union administrator for the 16,000-member group of Miami-Dade teachers and support personnel.
Florida is 47th in the nation in funding for public education, he said. He said he doesn't agree that slot revenues for schools could not outweigh other concerns. "We're that desperate in Dade County that we can't discard it because it's not enough millions. We desperately need it."
He said he is concerned that the Legislature would use slot revenues to fund existing programs instead of using them to supplement other funding. That's what happened with the state lottery, he said.
Early voting will begin Feb. 21 throughout Miami-Dade, said Seth Kaplan, county elections department spokesman. Voters can cast ballots at any site during the early-voting period but must vote in their designated precincts March 8.
Election officials will open about 560 polling places. Almost half of the 2.3 million Miami-Dade residents are registered voters. Deadline to register was Feb. 7.