Slot machine proponents hit jackpot in Miami-Dade County

Jan 30, 2008

Article published Jan 29, 2008

Slot machine proponents hit jackpot in Miami-Dade County


Slot machine supporters hit the jackpot Tuesday as Miami-Dade County voters approved the installation of the devices at three pari-mutuel facilities, with tax dollars from gambling funneled into a state education fund.

According to complete but unofficial results, more than 242,000 or 63 percent of county voters approved the slot machine measure and 37 percent or nearly 142,000 were against it.

County voters shot down a referendum for Las Vegas-style slot machines in 2005, so Tuesday was their second chance to weigh the pros and cons of introducing the devices at Miami Jai-Alai, the Flagler Sports and Entertainment Center dog track and Calder Race Course, which features horses.

Izzy Havenick, a slots supporter whose family owns the Flagler facility, said bringing expanded gambling to the area was a dream of his father Fred Havenick, who died in June 2006.

"This must be what it feels like to win the Super Bowl," said Havenick, 30. "My father died with this dream and we’re just happy we can make it possible tonight. We’re going to come through on every commitment we made and we can’t wait to give back to the community."

Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, a leader of the anti-slots group Truth for Our Community, congratulated the winners and said he respected the will of the voters.

"I still feel strongly about our position that this was not a good economic deal for this county and this city, but only the future will tell us that," Robaina said.

Broward County approved slots in 2005 for its jai-alai fronton and horse and dog racetracks. Since their installation in 2006, slot machines at Gulfstream Park, Pompano Park Race Track and Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming Center have generated more than $100 million for the state’s Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, records show.

The state levies a 50 percent tax on Broward slot machine revenues, and Miami-Dade’s rate would be the same if slots are approved.

Critics of the Miami-Dade measure argued that gambling brings social ills such as addiction and erosion of families. Supporters said the state could use tax revenues from the slots for public schools. They also claimed the machines will help the Miami-Dade economy and provide thousands of jobs.

A study done by Coral Gables-based Washington Economics Group for the pro-slots organization Yes for a Greater Miami-Dade said more than 6,400 jobs could be created by the machines in their first year of operation. The study projects $26 million in tax revenues will go to the county and the cities of Miami and Miami Gardens in the first year.

National gaming industry observers have noted the Broward slots have not met revenue expectations, partly because of the high tax rate and competition from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The tribe has seven casinos in the state, including two juggernauts: the Hard Rock hotels and entertainment centers in Tampa and Hollywood.

Miami-Dade opponents also included former Gov. Jeb Bush and former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. The Humane Society of the United States donated $500,000 for an anti-slots campaign because of the potential economic benefits the machines present for dog racing, which it strongly opposes.

Supporters included pari-mutuel owners such as the Havenick family, who has said much-needed improvements to the facility were planned if the measure passes.

Voters on Tuesday said the issues hinged on the social implications of gambling and its true economic benefits.

Damaris Gonzalez, 42, said she voted against the slots measure because of gambling addiction concerns.

"I don’t like gambling or the idea of it," Gonzalez said. "It’s an addiction and I have had personal experiences with people who have lost their homes and their families because of it."

But Josie Gems, 44, sees an economic opportunity.

"It will bring revenue to the city and the county," Gems said. "It brings in more income and I don’t think they are hurting the animals. And people are going to be addicted anyway."

With an estimated 2.4 million people, Miami-Dade ranks eighth among the nation’s counties in population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

State figures show there are about 3,285 slot machines running in Florida. The addition of slots in Miami-Dade will potentially add 2,000 to that total.

In Coral Gables, voter Juan Sague, 67, said he supported slot machines but was skeptical about whether the tax revenues for education will truly be significant enough to have an affect as they are spread throughout Florida.

"I’m voting yes not because of the money going to education, because that is a lie," Sague said. "It may create 5,000 jobs, and that would be good for the community. The jobs are what’s important."