Privatizing elections

Published: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 9:45 p.m.

The gambling industry has given new meaning to the phrase "buying an election."

It's a bad precedent, and the fact that South Florida officials have resorted to word games and an "indirect" payment method doesn't make it any better.

Voters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties will go to the polls March 8 for a special election to determine if slot machines are permitted in South Florida pari-mutuel facilities.

The costs of holding the election in those two counties will be paid for by the gambling industry - although the county attorneys involved said that's really not the case because that would be illegal.

So the agreement is that the industry will pay Broward and Miami-Dade a total of $6.5 million (about the cost of holding the elections), which will be used to offset expected gambling expenses such as road improvements and additional security, The Miami Herald reported.

"If the taxpayers have to bear the cost of a full special election like this, I would be hesitant to put it on" the ballot, Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez told the newspaper this month.

Having said that, he later told the reporter: "It's not buying an election. Buying an election is giving someone five bucks and telling them to vote yes."

It also goes against an opinion that the Florida Division of Elections issued more than 20 years ago. Martin County commissioners were considering a tourist development tax in 1983 and asked if a private interest could pay the cost of the special election needed for its approval.

"Public elections are not a business or a commodity, but a public trust secured to the elected officials who are accountable to the electors for their actions," the division ruled.

But, of course, the gambling interests aren't paying for the elections. Murry Greenberg, first assistant county attorney, said so.

"From our perspective, but the documents - the intent and the actuality - is that the cost of the election is being borne 100 percent by Miami-Dade County," he told The Herald.

Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkley, said he didn't find the arrangement "particularly horrifying" as long as elected officials retained control of the election's timing and related issues.

As one might imagine, when a $6.5 million string is attached to the election, the stringholder can manage to pull things around.

Late last week, as they neared final approval for the special election, Miami-Dade commissioners wanted to put an issue raising the County Commission pay on the same ballot. The gambling industry wanted nothing else on the ballot to cloud its chances.

The pay issue also meant that the election would have to be delayed for a few weeks. That didn't sit well with the industry, either, for two reasons:

First, the Miami-Dade election needed to be held March 8 - the same day as the Broward election. That allows the gambling interests to maximize their campaign strategy and spending.

Second, the Legislature still hasn't formulated how revenue from the slot machines in South Florida will be taxed and distributed to other counties in the state. The faster the machines are up and running, the quicker the money starts coming in.

Paul Sego, executive director of No Casinos, asked that the election be delayed. Commissioners voted 11-1 to put it on the ballot - without the pay-raise issue.

"They called our bluff and we folded," said Commissioner Dennis Moss, who had proposed the pay-raise vote. Moss tried to make light of the commission's bluffing abilities: "We need to stay away from the pari-mutuels."

No one need bother trying to tell him that they're already in deeper than they imagine.

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