Emotions, Cash Fly as Florida Slots Vote Nears

Emotions and cash are flying in the final weeks before a March 8 vote to permit slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities, including Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in south Florida.

The political action committee pushing for slots, Yes for Better Schools and Jobs, is in the process of spending much of the $3.7 million it raised from locals and the seven licensed pari-mutuel operators. Signs have been posted, an array of consultants added to the payroll, and door-to-door canvassers are being hired from as far away as Washington, D.C.

According to Russ Oster, a campaign consultant for the pro-slots group, the aim is to reach the majority of registered voters in the two counties by going door-to-door. "What we're doing is running a local campaign of an unprecedented measure," he said.

Meanwhile, a cadre of elected officials, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has lined up to defeat the measure. In a letter to the Christian Coalition of South Florida, further distributed by the coalition to church groups and community leaders, Bush contends that passage would create "a snowball effect" that would lead to full-blown casinos throughout the state.

At the same time, Bush has asked Secretary of State Glenda Hood to investigate the industry's involvement in funding the election.

In the legislature, central Florida Rep. Randy Johnson, a Republican strongly opposed to gambling, has filed a resolution in the Florida House that would place an amendment on the ballot statewide repealing slots. Johnson, too, has begun lining up support for harsh regulation on the operation of slots should the measures pass March 8.

The uncertainty over legislative regulation has led to the opposition of the measure by both Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulanti and Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs. "How can we vote yes when we don't know what we're getting yet," Giulanti argued.