Broward's gamble on slot machines is a bad bet for Florida
By Michael Lewis
Last week's special session of the Florida Legislature guaranteed that Broward County residents would be the state's first victims of legalized slot-machine casinos - but maybe not the last.
The same constitutional amendment that is about to set the clock back 50 years in Broward applies to Miami-Dade, where the three parimutuel operators - a dog track, a horse track and a jai-alai fronton - plan to finagle voters again in 15 months to turn back the clock here.
It would be sooner, but by law, the gaming interests have to wait until March 2007, two full years after Miami-Dade voters wisely rejected bringing back gambling.
Not that gambling here was ever legal - it was just rampant. It took nationally viewed federal hearings in television's early days to begin a crackdown on organized crime's gambling stranglehold on this community.
Broward is about to be a test case for what happens when 1,500 slot machines are dumped into each of four parimutuels, doors are opened 16 hours a day 365 days a year and Las Vegas-style slot machines - the big moneymakers - are legal in Florida for the first time. Forget the bingo-style machines at Indian casinos - these babies will clean out pockets much more efficiently.
The carrot for all of this has been that education will profit as gambling degrades a community. The Legislature decided that 50% of the new casinos' profits will go to schools statewide, meaning just a sliver of the education pie will stay in Broward.
But Broward gets to keep all of the social evils that slots bring, including what Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess told his commission would be added crime, congestion, demands for social services, problem gambling leading to mental-health and addiction-treatment costs and more.
Moreover, Mr. Burgess noted that every slot-machine dollar that would have gone to a legitimate business and then been circulated in the community instead will be pulled out of those ventures, further harming the local economy, because consumer spending creates a multiplier that slots don't.
Broward residents are about to find out that the economic shot in the arm they're looking for from casinos is more like a shot in the head.
There's still hope for those who realize gambling is the farthest thing from an economic enhancer.
State Rep. Randy Johnson of Celebration, who headed a failed No Casinos drive last year, has pledged to fight to repeal the amendment that permits casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade. He's aware that once the gambling camel's nose is in Florida's tent, the camel will tromp all over the state.
More good news: Gov. Jeb Bush, who held his own nose all the way as he made sure legislators obeyed the constitution and set rules to govern Broward's new slot empires, says he'll join Mr. Johnson's effort.
Broward still has months before slots take hold. The state's Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering must write regulations to allow the startup in six months, and the four parimutuel operators have to decide how profitable their casino ventures are likely to be - hence, how big to build.
The Legislature worked under the assumption that casino profits would hit $418 million a year in Broward by 2007-08, with a tad going to local communities and half to education, leaving the four operators about $50 million apiece in guaranteed annual profit, courtesy of John Q. Public. When did voters ever hand such a bonanza to other businesses?
As for the jobs growth promoters ingenuously promised us during the election campaign, remember this: In February, they held a job fair, holding out hope of jobs to thousands of residents - yet casinos won't open until 16 months after the job signups. Few of the down-on-their-luck applicants will win jobs that much later.
But then, that's the way casinos work: They hold out a promise of riches to those who can least afford their siren call, and everybody but the casino operator loses in the end.