Organized gambling thrives on silence of unorganized foes
By Michael Lewis
Organized gambling is betting big money will fix anything.
It will fix a legislature to turn a blind eye to permanent changes big-time gambling would make to Florida's quality of life.
It will subvert an election required to end our state constitution's ban on casinos.
It will fix government oversight as officials grab for table scraps and ignore overarching policy issues.
It will freeze out opponents as promised jobs and contracts buy off leaders, their families and their companies.
So many Miamians plan to feed at organized gambling's tables that all we can see to save us are the good folks of North and Central Florida and — ironically — those who now profit from the lower-level gambling with which we are already afflicted.
Everyone else is on the gravy train — or plans to be.
Coalitions the late Alvah Chapman spearheaded to save us from gambling's scourges — drugs, prostitution, loan-sharking, mob violence, broken homes, lost souls and moral decay — have yet to surface and might never.
Those who once put names and money on the line to save a community are invisible. Some hope gambling operators will kill each other off as they fight to win casino licenses or preserve turfs. In this scenario, gambling's purses will compete, vanquishing all but the richest.
That offers neither a hopeful outcome nor a helpful strategy, but it's touted as the only defense as gambling sprinkles contracts to those who otherwise might fight it.
Civic organizations feign neutrality, but the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce is publicizing a survey at one event where "an overwhelming 71% of respondents said they would be supportive" of casino gambling. Were casino backers tipped off to be there?
The chamber's C.E.O. Report calls the Genting Group's plan for two casinos that include the chamber's present office complex "an iconic entertainment and hotel complex plan that would include a casino for visitors to Miami." Yet Genting has stated that its Omni casino geared just to locals will be 75,000 square feet larger than the one it plans for visitors.
And that's a chamber that was for decades a pillar of the anti-gambling coalition.
The good people of Miami-Dade so far sit silent and gambling has an open road, along with its inevitable and still very illegal companions in crime.
Yes, drug dealing and prostitution and loan-sharking and gangs exist already. So do gambling addiction and poverty and broken homes.
But when we open the door to massive casinos, no matter how nicely we package them as "iconic entertainment and hotel" complexes to which families are invited and how futuristic the architecture and how much money casino operators drop into civic groups now, we're multiplying their scourges.
And let there be no doubt: any civic organization that says "We've already got a lot of evils here and we need jobs, so let's allow casinos by saying we're neutral" is yielding any claim to represent us.
One chamber member quotes Edmund Burke: "In order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing."
But good men and women sit silent. If they don't already have a horse in the race for a casino, many have a relative, friend, partner or client who does. And to casino interests, silence of opponents is golden.
So we allow changes that will forever decay Miami.
We watch a court ruling that Hialeah can have slot machines and agree it "proves" Miami can be afflicted with casinos without a popular vote.
We watch county commission Chairman Joe Martinez issue a press release headed "Casinos can be the key to lowering property taxes." This ex-cop has forgotten that scourges of casinos multiply costs to government to mitigate damages of crime and social distress.
Mr. Martinez denies any barrier. "It is obvious that destination resort casinos will be coming to the State of Florida in the near future," he tells the public with the leadership-by-surrender style that's becoming near universal.
He wants to tap gambling-generated taxes because "In these troubling times we must continue to be innovative in order to preserve the American dream, home ownership."
Does innovation extend to taxing drugs, prostitution and loan-sharking to preserve the American dream, Mr. Chairman? And how many of those owners will lose their homes via the gaming tables?
Regrettably, Mr. Martinez isn't surrendering alone. Miami's mayor and commissioners want a cut of casino taxes and the right to regulate casinos — akin to hens claiming control of the foxes in the henhouse.
Our county commission meanwhile wants to cut the city's Omni Community Redevelopment Agency out of at least 45% of property taxes on a casino in its territory. Some county commissioners prefer putting the city agency out of business and taking it all themselves.
Legislators, meanwhile, want to tap into casino licenses and a share of casino earnings to support state spending that they control.
It's the reverse of what casino foes target: instead of gambling operators cannibalizing each other as they seek massive takes, government is doing the same thing for the table crumbs, like dogs fighting for a bone.
All this in the name of jobs. Yet Atlantic City casinos just cut some jobs to $4.50 an hour and the US government records casino dealers' average pay at under $15,000. Tips add to that, but what do workers have to stoop to for that under-the-table tip money?
Also touted are construction jobs. But Genting says a 675,000-square-foot Omni Mall casino could open in a year with only interior decorating. And once a casino is licensed, what proves any beautiful resort designs we're shown would ever be built?
As for local government's ability to pry meaningful cash out of casino operators, remember this: a contract is only as good as the people who sign it.
We can debate how much a casino — or multiple casinos — could mean to the economy. Anyone can fund a study to show desired results. Genting told us jobs and economic impact first, then hired firms to echo that. How reassuring.
We can also debate the cost of casinos in battered lives and eroded lifestyle and social distress. But it's hard enough to quantify loss when they merely pave over paradise and put up a parking lot, much less a casino or three.
No matter the cost, some assume the battle is over but say, "Hey, I'm getting a piece of the action. Crumbs falling from the big table are mine."
Is that all that matters, a piece of the action?
Where are courage and backbone and morality? Are they out of fashion? Whatever happened to taking a stand for what's right rather than for how much we can get from something that's wrong?
Make no mistake, Miami: a "resort casino" just covers for vastly bigger gambling operations run by groups who make the folks running our Indian gambling and racinos look like bishops.
Nobody utters the M word, but having massive casinos here would be a big boost to our filming industry. Rather than just fiction, we could make mob dramas here as documentaries.
None of this, of course, is unknown. It's simply repeating what's behind closed doors but not said aloud.
To those who have the moral fiber to say it in public, a simple plea: Let's not wait too long to show that bad money can't fix everyone. Once it takes hold, big-time casino gambling is a terminal disease.
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