Gambling supporters, opponents gearing up for campaign on slots
By April M. Havens
With Miami-Dade County commission approval for a question on the Jan. 29 ballot to allow Vegas-style slot-machine gambling at the county's three pari-mutuels, proponents and opponents are beginning to organize campaigns.
Jose Fuentes, a spokesman for the Yes for Greater Miami-Dade campaign in support of slot machines, said members are forming their campaign and about to begin research on the number of jobs slots would create and who will campaign against them.
Yes for Greater Miami-Dade will represent Flagler Dog Track and Sports Entertainment Center, Calder Race Course and Miami Jai-Alai, the three pari-mutuels that would benefit from passage, Mr. Fuentes said.
If passed, slot machines would be permitted in facilities that hold pari-mutuel licenses. Portions of revenues from the devices would support education spending in Miami-Dade and other Florida counties.
Supporters feel Miami-Dade voters are ready to allow slots after defeating them by a narrow margin in 2005, when Broward County voters gave their approval.
"There has definitely been a shift," Mr. Fuentes said. "The people of this county are overtaxed, and there has to be additional revenue. This is one of the key elements. It's a new way of economic prosperity."
Izzy Havenick, vice president of Flagler Dog Track, said he "would hope that Miami-Dade would realize that the sky hasn't fallen in Broward County."
The 5,000-member Christian Family Coalition will take "a very aggressive and public stance against it," said Executive Director Anthony Verdugo.
Even though it's too early to discuss the coalition's campaign plans, Mr. Verdugo said, slot machines would "eventually become a regressive tax."
"Miami-Dade has bigger fish to fry — like high homeowners' insurance and property taxes — not focusing on trying to take more money away from the voters, selling them a fantasy," he said. "The fact that the commission is focusing on this shows that they are catering to special interests, not their constituents."
Gary Johnson, director of missions at the Miami Baptist Association, said his group of churches isn't planning to campaign against slots but said most of his members probably will oppose them.
"Most of the people in the Baptist circle would probably be not for the slots because most Baptists are probably against any form of gambling," he said. "But there are other issues we would be more excited about — like abortion. But as of now, I haven't sensed too much one way or the other."
Mr. Havenick said the advocate campaign will mimic efforts in 2005. "We are going to hold a campaign like we did in March 2005 and try to educate people to the benefits of having regulated, taxed facilities," he said. "Back then, we did TV, radio and went around speaking to people. We are currently in the formation stages of our campaign going over every detail because ... we want it to be an organized campaign."
Benefits of slots, according to proponents, include additional revenue to the county, additional jobs, funding of services that otherwise could be cut due to property-tax reform, increased tourism and funding for education.
William Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention &Visitors Bureau, said the bureau has not taken an official position, "but it is my view that anything that adds to the offerings in Miami-Dade is good for us."
Even though the typical Miami tourist comes for the weather, shopping and fine dining, Mr. Talbert said, tourists "don't know where the county line is." Slot machines in pari-mutuels "won't necessarily draw tourists but will be an additional offering."
If voters fail to pass the measure, Miami-Dade County will not lose tourists to Broward County, where three facilities have Class III slots, Mr. Talbert said.
Opponents claim slot machines are immoral, prey on the poor, increase crime, weaken the economy and don't deliver as much funding for education as claimed.
"But I'd say a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing," Mr. Havenick said, noting that many research reports claim crime does not increase when a casino is introduced. "Gambling doesn't bring the element that naysayers claim it does," he said.
County Commissioner Katy Sorenson was the only commissioner to vote against allowing slots on the January ballot, saying the machines would prey on those who can't afford it.
Mr. Havenick said that claim should be discredited. "People who say it preys on the poor turn a blind eye on the lottery, which is available in any convenience store you go into."