Even a fifth-grader knows we shouldn't gamble away our future
By Michael Lewis
If you're convinced Las Vegas-style gambling would improve Miami, skip this column.
If you plan to make a killing by preying on the gambling habits of others, please read elsewhere.
If you have a welcome mat out for the Mafia, pass this by.
But if you haven't already sold out your mind, heart, vote and courage to the forces of darkness, read on.
Please, please read on if you are sincere about improving education and adding jobs - the benefits slots promoters are touting in a promise a fifth-grader would tell you is empty.
In fact, a fifth-grader would ask the questions that our leaders haven't. Questions like:
"Daddy, didn't you say it was wrong to bet my lunch money with Jimmy? So why is it right for grown-ups to bet the rent money?"
Or, "Daddy, didn't you say fortune tellers can't know the future? So why do you believe slot machines will send money to schools when nobody knows if the machines will even be taxed?"
Or, "Daddy, didn't you warn me the ends don't justify the means? So why do we want bad people to take money from good people so that some of the money can go to schools and the bad people get to keep most of it?"
Or, "Daddy, didn't you tell me to stand up for what's right? So why are mayors and chambers of commerce so afraid of upsetting a few powerful people?"
To take the last first, the fifth-grader would scratch his head when he learned what Mayor Carlos Alvarez said Friday - in a press release, no less - about slot machines:
"While I personally voted against this issue, I firmly believe in every voter's right to weigh this question on their own and decide what they consider is in the best interest of the county. It is our responsibility to carry out the will of the voters and allow them to decide what goes forward in this community."
In a memo to county commissioners, he emphasized the "will of the voters" mumbo jumbo and ended with the sentence "As mayor and as a voter, I value the opportunity for my opinion to be heard."
This is hardly a civics lesson for a fifth-grader. Our mayor goes out of his way to tell us that he's voting against something he thinks is wrong and then goes further out of his way to say that he doesn't want to influence others on how they vote because everybody gets to decide if they want to be on the side of right or wrong.
We elected him to lead, but he's not going to lift a finger.
A betting man would wager that the mayor's father didn't teach him that. It's also a good bet that the mayor's father would be as disappointed as we are.
Sure, Mr. Mayor, everybody can choose right or wrong. But a leader fights to get the community to support what is right.
In the same way, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, which just beefed up its team to lobby for what it thinks is right, should be pushing to finance education the right way, not the wrong way.
The chamber should be letting voters know that from a business viewpoint, we're far, far better off taxing ourselves $200 million or more for schools than we are losing $1 billion in slots so that the schools can get back perhaps as much as $200 million - or perhaps nothing, because it's a gamble.
Instead, the chamber is silent. Leaders say a fistful of big-money members want slot machines so they haven't taken a stand that even a fifth-grader would know is right.
The chamber and the Beacon Council together should be trumpeting that not only are 18,200 jobs that slots interests mention just a figment of their political machine's imagination but that the $1 billion slots operators would profit each year would cost this community far more jobs than gambling could ever create. Money that now flows from hand to hand and business to business here would trickle to schools elsewhere in the state and flood into the coffers of seven gambling operators at best, the Mob at worst.
Of course, some of the gambling backers' money is being spent on mailing pieces and commercials. So far, I've gotten eight mailers from the slots people urging me to vote for their billion-dollar windfall. Probably every household in this county has received as many, at a cost of about $10 per family. Still, for a billion a year profit, that's not costly because we'll pay the slots operators back for this sales job many times over if we let gambling expand.
The gambling promoters are shrewd. By offering a pittance to the county and the cities that house the parimutuels that would be the locations for Vegas-style slots, the promoters bought off the opposition.
But as Mayor Alvarez noted, the little the county is to get would only "help pay for increased law enforcement, development, crime, congestion, social-service demands and other costs associated with adding a total of 8,400 slot machines." In other words, not only would we suffer a net loss in quality of life with slots, but there would be a revenue net loss to the county, which would only be partially reimbursed by gambling operators. Just another benefit of gambling: higher taxes to repair the damage.
By the way, note the 8,400 - up from the 6,500 slot machines we were told about weeks ago. The gambling interests obviously feel they can slip more past the Legislature than they planned. And each added machine increases the take.
Our fifth-grader has probably viewed too much television so no doubt has seen "It's a Wonderful Life," the Frank Capra film in which an executive who stood up for what was good for his community was given a glimpse of what the town would have been like without his courage.
If so, the fifth-grader would see a warmhearted town become a city of harshness, greed and depravity, a place where poverty increased and money flowed only to a small group that controlled things - the kinds of places where slots would prevail.
If our silent leaders could get that same look-ahead at Miami, they'd see in 10 years a thriving metropolis turn to seediness as gambling encroached further and further. They might not see a decline in tourism, but visitors would slide from the upper end of the scale of desirability to the lower. They'd find Miami Beach looking like Atlantic City. Most of all, they'd regret that their silence made it that way.
You can count on the fingers of one hand the leaders who so far have taken the high road, spoken their minds and put themselves on the line.
Count the Miami Beach City Commission, which voted 5-2 to condemn the slots.
Count civic leaders Alvah Chapman and Armando Codina, who together penned an article stating their opposition.
Count TV journalist Michael Putney, who did likewise.
And count Gov. Jeb Bush, who not only stated his opposition but implicitly threatened to veto legislation that would start slots whirling here.
That's about it. Others, like Mayor Alvarez, say they'll vote against slots but won't try to get others to join them.
An election in just five days will determine our future.
Will it be a Wonderful Life for the fifth graders of today?
Or will they someday ask their elders why they bet the rent money on something that failed, didn't make sure the schools would get money that was promised, let gambling profits flow to people you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley and - most of all - didn't stand up for what they knew was right while there was still time?