In order to get a vote on an amendment to the Florida Constitution, you need to gather well over a half-million signatures of Florida voters. This was accomplished during the first part of 2004. Then, there were challenges to the legitimacy of the signatures, a challenge to the wording of the amendment. Amendment 4 was approved by the Florida Supreme Court and would be on the March 2005, special election.
Some of the opponents to the so-called “expansion of gambling in Florida” were out in the open and making their objections known. The Disney Corporation began pouring money into opposing Amendment 4. Some South Florida local businessmen, such as auto magnate Norman Braman, became the voice of the opposition. Their reasoning seemed to be that Florida didn’t need any more options to draw tourists. The problem was, many tourists were now stopping at Disney World, not traveling past it. South Florida tourism was declining.
Though Amendment 4 was a vote by the people of Florida, we still needed political support in Tallahassee from our legislators and our governor. The amendment would lay out the framework of allowing slot machines only in Dade and Broward counties. It would dictate that the state taxes would go to supplement the education budget statewide. But our state government would have final say on regulation and degree of the taxation.
Our governor at that time was Jeb Bush. The republicans and Bush pretty much controlled the state, as they do today. But most republicans are very pro-business. Pari-mutuel wagering was one of the largest industries in the state, employing a huge number of Floridians, and generating a major amount of tax dollars. They knew our plight and most definitely didn’t want to see the industry go under. Notice I use the word “most.”
While having no moral issues taking large contributions from horse tracks, dog tracks, and Jai-Alai owners, Governor Bush said publicly that he was “morally” opposed to gambling. He made it known that he was not going to support this amendment even if our survival depended on it.
So, the best we could hope for was that he basically stayed silent on the issue. We were hopeful that he didn’t campaign against it and would let the Florida voters make their own decisions.
Many pari-mutuel owners, who had supported Bush and his past campaigns, met with him. Employees and customers were urged to contact him and ask for his support. We knew his voice could sway many of the voters and sink our efforts. And then he spoke: “Florida stands at the cusp,” Bush said. “The true costs are significant and real: long-term decay of our traditional industries and the social fabric of our communities.” Jeb Bush fired the first, big shot. The true battle was on.
One of our pro-slots advocates was former state Education Commissioner Jim Horne. He tried to counter Bush’s arguments by saying that gambling is already here and has been in the state. Gambling on the reservations and the cruise ships to “no-where” are largely untaxed, unregulated. Horne touted that this would be a windfall for all of Florida’s 67 school districts. “We’re simply talking about capturing existing revenue and putting it to good use– toward education,” he went on to say.
There were so many conflicting groups supporting and opposing Amendment 4. The Florida PTA staunchly opposed the referendum. The state’s largest teacher union, the FEA, supported it. The mayors of Miami-Dade and Broward counties lined up against the measure, but many of their commissioners supported it.
There were so many rumors about Las Vegas companies making secret deals with some of the tracks and frontons. Some provided funds to help pass the amendment linked to offers of partnerships or complete buyouts. Of course, Las Vegas was interested. They have always been interested in Florida. If casino gambling could flourish in the desert, just think what it would do with sunshine and beaches.
Meanwhile, Steve Snyder, my boss and owner was supporting the issue, but was mysteriously silent on what he would do if it passed. His investment, Dania Jai-Alai, was now losing money, no matter what we tried. He knew slots would be lucrative and save us. But would he secretly ink an agreement with another gambling company or hang on to this lucrative property and run his own casino/Jai-Alai facility? Steve was a good poker player and at our daily lunches, he would not reveal his hand to us. At least, not to me.
The Jai-Alai players continued with their “SOS” (Save Our Sport) campaign. They had contacts with the many Latino leaders in South Florida that didn’t want to see the sport die out. Most supported the SOS movement. But would it be enough?
As the March 2005, vote approached, the battle got very serious. Governor Bush and some of the legislative leaders announced they would hold a “No Casinos” rally in Ft. Lauderdale. Bush would be there in person to speak against the measure.
We countered by planning our own pro-Amendment 4 rally outside, hoping to show them the large support for passage. The players would be there with Save Our Sport signs. This was, indeed, a big showdown between the two sides, hoping to sway the predicted close vote.
Snyder, of course, encouraged all the Dania employees, including management, to go there and support the cause. I went. Standing outside downtown Ft. Lauderdale Hall where their rally was to take place, I was impressed with the turnout of our supporters. The players were there enthusiastically chanting the SOS slogans. Then, the political entourage arrived.
Now, realize that I was mostly apolitical throughout my life. As most young people, I was thinking only of… well, what most young people think about. Then, I got married and was busy raising a family. But, during my Jai-Alai career, I saw how the politicians used the pari-mutuels. We were always promised things by both parties, (tax relief, deregulation, etc.) only to have them jerked away at the end of the legislative sessions. Over the years, I have seen our companies contribute to campaigns and pay huge sums to lobbyists, hoping they would be sympathetic and pass some bills to help us. Yet, those same politicians, always promising to help, were now prepared to let us go under.
My career now depended on a single amendment, a single vote by the people of Florida. And this group of politicians were now entering a hall trying to make sure my love, my livelihood, came to an end. So, I decided to enter that hall. What I saw was incredible. But what I heard was unbelievable!