Civics class: why the airport seeks slot machines and racing
By Michael Lewis
"Good morning, children. In civics class today we'll be talking about how Miami-Dade government really works. Do you know what the county does?"
"My daddy says the county doesn't do anything good, Miss Jones."
"That's not exactly right, Henry. The county tries to give us things we really need."
"Like what, Miss Jones?"
"Well, today at our airport it's trying to bring us not only horseracing for your parents to bet on but also lots of shiny slot machines that everyone who passes through will have fun dropping their money into."
"My daddy says gambling is wrong, Miss Jones. He told me never to bet my lunch money on anything."
"Henry, that's because your daddy doesn't think like government. Government believes in gambling as long as it's someone else's money — and with the county, it always is. So today, the county is trying to convince the state that it's able to start designing a horse track at the airport by next month."
"Why does the county want to build a racetrack at the airport, Miss Jones?"
"Actually, Maria, the county doesn't want to build a racetrack there, or anywhere. But it's been working very hard filing reports and drawings of where it would build a track at the airport because the state requires the reports."
"Miss Jones, that sounds just like the homework you make us do that we don't want to do."
"Not exactly, Henry. The people who run the airport actually asked the state for approval to build the racetrack. They just don't want to ever build it. They really plan for someone else to run its races two days a year on a track that's already built. But the state won't let the airport hold races somewhere else until it can prove that it can hold the races right at the airport."
"Miss Jones, that sounds stupid."
"Yes, Susie, it sounds stupid. I told you we're going to show you how government really works, didn't I."
"But why does an airport want to hold races anywhere, Miss Jones? Is that what airports do?"
"No, Bobby, it isn't. But if the airport doesn't hold horse races the state won't let it put in slot machines. That's the law — no horse races, no slot machines. So the airport wants to hold races just so it can get slot machines."
"But why does the county want slot machines? Just to take away people's money?"
"No, Maria. It doesn't really want to take away the few dollars passengers have left after they pay the big new fees for checking luggage. But it needs the money to pay for a teensy-weensy little county mistake. It built a massive new airport that was going to cost less than $2 billion but really cost about $7 billion. And it can't pay the bill."
"Miss Jones, if I put down 2 in my arithmetic and it's really 7, I fail. What happened to whoever put down 2 instead of 7 — and what's a billion dollars, anyway?"
"Susie, the people who put down 2 instead of 7 are no longer there. That's how government really works — by the time we know the mistake they're all gone and someone else has to fix it. And that's what government always says: What's a billion dollars, anyway?"
"Miss Jones, why did they want such a big new airport?"
"Because, Pedro, the people who were running the airport 15 years ago said that instead of having 30 million passengers each year it would be about 60 million by now. So they decided to build a much bigger airport, thinking that when they got paid twice as much for handling twice as many people, the airport would certainly be able to pay the bill. But those other 30 million people never showed up."
"Another arithmetic error, Miss Jones?"
"Yes, another error. But, again, the folks who made it are long gone so there's no penalty for them. And the people now running the airport have to find $500 million extra every year to pay for expanding. So, among other things, they want to get money from slot machines to help pay the bill."
"Miss Jones, I think I understand. The airport is working hard to get state permission to build a race track it doesn't want in order to hold horse races elsewhere that it doesn't want in order to put in slot machines that it only needs because it can't pay its bills because it spent $5 billion too much expanding after somebody guessed 30 million passengers too many. So now gamblers in the public have to pay because gamblers in the county lost their bets."
"Susie, that's it exactly."
"So, Miss Jones, is that how government always works in Miami-Dade County? Or, are you making all of this up?"
"Of course I'm not making it up, Maria. The airport earns money to pay its own bills, so when it can't pay them all it has to raise money somehow. So it's gambling on horses and slot machines.
"But most of county government works differently: when it gambles with the public's money and loses, it simply raises taxes and takes more from the public to pay the bill for its mistakes.
"And that children, is your civics lesson for today. Now, don't you feel like happy little citizens?"