This week we had an election. In Florida, there were three amendments on the ballot. None of them passed. It is very difficult to get voters to approve constitutional amendments in our state. It is virtually impossible to get any gambling amendment passed.
Florida voters overwhelmingly turned down casino-type gambling in 1978, 1986, and 1994. Proponents had high hopes for passage. Millions of dollars were poured into those campaigns only to see them fall short. The pari-mutuels (horses, dogs, and Jai-Alai) were against these casino gambling proposals since it would mean serious competition for the gaming dollar.
Now, it is 2004. The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes have beautiful casino-like facilities filled with VLTs (video lottery terminals), that mimic slot machines. There are “cruise ships to nowhere” operating throughout the state that open their gambling tables in international waters. And, the state of Florida is in the gambling business offering a variety of lottery games including the high-paying Lotto. And, our business is crumbling.
Then, we hear about a movement spearheaded by the owners of some dog and horse track owners. Having spent years trying to get help from the Florida Legislature, they think it is time for another constitutional amendment. But, this one is unique… a gambling amendment that only affects South Florida, yet benefits the rest of the counties in the state. An amendment that brings millions of dollars to education.
Well, Floridians have heard that song before. The Florida Lottery promised all this money for education. Yes, they did contribute to our education budget. But, the slick politicians in Tallahassee deducted money from that budget knowing they were getting lottery money. The net sum was basically zero. There was no extra money for schools and teachers. They just did the “bait and switch” routine, as politicians often do.
“This amendment will have language that makes sure proceeds from the slot machines will SUPPLEMENT the state education budget and cannot be used as replacement money,” we were told. “Slots would only be allowed in the existing pari-mutuel facilities in Dade and Broward counties, nowhere else in the state,” they said, dispelling the expansion of gambling theory. “Plus, if passed, there will be another vote by the county commissions of those two counties which could veto the slots in their county.”
Why would this have a chance of working? Florida is really two states and probably should be named like the Carolinas or Dakotas. There is the very conservative North Florida, which is the panhandle through Jacksonville. Almost everything from the I-4 corridor north has been against expansion of gambling, spearheaded by the Disney corporation. But, North Florida has some of the poorest, financially needy schools.
Then, you have Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, which is South Florida. Many in North Florida view those in the south as “heathens” with the fast pace and the South Beach night life. Is there a way to construct this amendment where the so-called “evil” of gambling is limited to South Florida, yet the financial windfall is shared with the schools of North Florida?
Of course, this requires a lot to fall into place. First, you need the financial support of all the track and fronton owners. You have to finance a signature drive in order to get the amendment on the ballot. There needs to be a tremendous state-wide advertising campaign explaining the benefits to education throughout the state and the limitations of the amendment. Finally, you will have to attract and mobilize allies, like the Teacher’s Union, other education associations, local Chambers of Commerce, and the local communities.
The hardest part will be to combat those opposed to it. They will say it is a huge expansion of gambling, that Florida doesn’t need it, even though educational funds are always short. Some politicians will fight it vehemently, using morality as their argument. Disney will pour money in against the campaign. It could be a blood bath. Or could it actually succeed?
Steve Snyder met with the other owners to explore the concept and discuss our possible participation. He was cautious and not about to commit funds without knowing the odds of success. Meetings were held with our Jai-Alai players, explaining that while slot machines had nothing to do with the sport, the financial benefits could actually save it. We needed the players support.
The players had their own meetings. They, too, came to the realization that without another viable product, the companies could not continue to operate. The Jai-Alai players decided that this indeed was an “SOS” moment. They would begin their “Save Our Sport” (SOS) campaign, knowing that this could, indeed, be the last hope for the survival of Jai-Alai in the United States.