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Gambling's long history in Florida

Gambling has not always been legal in Florida but it has always been here. A century before the state established the lottery, legalized slot machines, and opened the doors to casinos on Seminole reservations, Henry Flagler was enticing high rollers to the state.

Within months of opening his first hotel, the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine in 1888, the pioneering plutocrat erected the exclusive and illegal Bacchus Club casino, a gambler's paradise of roulette wheels, craps tables and bookie boards nestled near the beach.

With every hotel, Flagler built both a house of chance and, nearby, a house of prayer. On the state's west coast, Henry Plant was building his own hotels serviced by railroads as well, which also steered wealthy patrons to local gambling houses.

Today, as legislators ponder whether to pursue the biggest expansion of gambling in history by signing off on an agreement with the Seminole Tribe, Flagler's contrasting sides of mammon and morality mirror the debate. For decades, Florida's politics and people have alternately railed against the evils of gambling and then eagerly craved the revenues it can produce.

In the 1920s, Tampa had become a hotbed of bolita, the illegal but popular numbers game imported from Cuba and Americanized in Florida. Miami was teeming with gambling houses and was the winter home for some of the country's most powerful racketeers. The city of Hialeah took root in 1924 on a spit of remote swamp land and housed Hialeah Park, an illegal but bustling horse track.

And by the 1930s, notorious organized crime bosses Al Capone and Meyer Lansky had established Florida hangouts. Tampa's illicit gambling trade spawned so many gangland-style slayings that the town earned the nickname "Little Chicago." And with a wink and a nod, casinos and speakeasies paid sheriffs, sheriffs paid chiefs of police, and politicians were welcome customers.

"Bolita had become so pervasive it was buying elections in Florida," said University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino. In the 1930s and '40s in Florida, Mormino said, "You'd have bolita in small country towns. You had black bolita bosses and white bolita bosses. It was seen as a victimless crime with small stakes and the police were in on it. It was just root and core."

Today, legalized gambling is woven into the fabric of Florida. Producing more than $2.2 billion annually from slot machines, parimutuels and the state-run lottery, it is as fundamental to the state's revenue base as tourism. There is now a Lotto machine in every convenience store and a poker room in every major county. It is easier to find a place to buy a lottery ticket than a Quarter Pounder.

But just as gambling endures in Florida, so has resistance to it. Illegal gambling rackets would flourish openly for years, then be smacked down by a high-profile scandal and demonized by church and political leaders.

Govs. Doyle Carlton, Fuller Warren, LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush all fought its expansion.

In 1926, protests from church groups and devastation from that year's hurricane forced Hialeah to close its racetrack for a time. But it reopened illegally and, in the midst of the Depression, pushed through legislation in 1931 that legalized horse racing — marking the first time gambling was legitimized in the state. The measure passed by one vote in the Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Doyle Carlton.

Forty years later, Carlton told the Miami Herald: "If the bill had been passed without purchase and in a straight, honorable way, I might have let it pass without my signature."

But when he was approached in his office and offered a bribe, he resisted. "You know what your name is worth today?'' he said he was asked. "It is worth $100,000 on this racing bill." Carlton replied: "If it's worth that much I believe I'll keep it. It's worth more to me than anyone else.''

Carlton's veto was overridden.

In 1935, the Florida Legislature legalized slot machines as a way to raise money for its Depression-ravaged budget. Two years later, LeRoy Collins, a state representative at the time, led the fight to outlaw them. Parents testified before legislative committees that they would see children go hungry because their nickels and dimes went into slot machines in the corner grocery on the way to school. State Rep. Raymond Sheldon of Tampa told his colleagues that a Hyde Park woman killed herself after borrowing $600 and losing it all in slot machines.

In the late 1940s, outraged Miamians attempted to crack down on syndicate-controlled gambling. They created the Crime Commission of Greater Miami, and the Miami Herald launched an anticrime crusade that culminated in a Pulitzer Prize and a visit from a U.S. Senate investigating committee led by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver in 1950.

In 1959 Collins was governor and, in a three-page article in Parade magazine, voiced the argument of his generation when he proclaimed: "Gambling, legal or illegal spreads … poison through a community. It is insidious. It kills more business than it generates. It encourages public corruption and undermines the faith of citizens in their officials. Worst of all, it saps more strength and character."

But by the 1960s, while the state racing commission controlled regulated gambling, bookmaking and bolita was churning out as much cash. One estimate: Organized crime grossed $50 million a year in Dade County alone.

In 1975, as casino promoters were preparing a statewide referendum asking voters to create a 16-mile strip of casinos in Dade and Broward counties, Askew railed against the evils of gambling.

Opposition from Christian conservatives, Walt Disney World, animal-rights groups opposed to horse and dog racing, and the gambling day-cruise industry helped to defeat the 1978 referendum. The same groups worked to kill subsequent attempts to bring legalized casinos to Florida in 1986 and 1994.

Only in 2004, when the expansion was limited to slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward and the proceeds distributed to every county, did voters approve it by a slim 50.8 percent majority.

Today, Florida legislators are struggling with the same question that political leaders have encountered for decades: how far to go to expand gambling in the face of a mounting competition for the gambling dollar.

This time, the competition has taken the form of the massive casino presence of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, an operation estimated at $2 billion a year with two Hard Rock casinos and five planned resorts on the tribe's seven reservations.

The Seminoles won the right to operate Las Vegas-style slot machines when Florida voters authorized slot machines in 2004. The tribe has agreed to share at least $150 million a year of its annual earnings with the state — and more as its revenues expand — in exchange for the exclusive operation of blackjack and other table games and the ability to run the only slot games outside of Miami-Dade and Broward.

Gov. Charlie Crist has signed off on the deal and now needs legislative approval. But the same parimutuels that spent decades to fight their way into legitimacy have watched their industry go from boom to bust in the face of the tribal games, the emergence of unregulated gambling on day cruises and Internet gambling.

They have urged legislators to push back, demand more money from the tribe, and agree to accept less cash in return for a chance to persuade voters to approve video lottery terminals (lower stakes slot machines) at horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons outside of Miami-Dade and Broward.

In an extraordinary shift in attitude, some conservative legislators — including those who had been among the most ardent opponents of expanded gambling in the past — have started advocating for a voter referendum that could allow parimutuels across the state to expand into low-stakes casino games and revive their troubled industry.

"As antigaming as I am, I realize … you've got to go to Plan B and that's the free market,'' Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, said this month at a meeting of the House gambling oversight committee.

Bogdanoff's comments mirror the shifting of public opinion in Florida. A Times/Herald poll found that 59 percent of voters believe the state should sign the Seminole gambling compact.

Today, 37 states have some form of casino gambling. A 2009 poll by Peter D. Hart for the American Gaming Association found that 81 percent of Americans think casino gaming is acceptable for themselves and others, while the majority consider casino gambling a form of entertainment, comparable to going to a concert or sporting event or the theater.

In a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of the public said they believed that legalized gambling encourages people to gamble more than they can afford but only one-third of them thought that gambling is morally wrong.

What catalyzed this remarkable shift from an ideological and moralistic crusade to an acceptance of a public policy that fosters gambling?

"That's an intriguing question,'' answers Mormino, the USF historian. "The easy answer is, desperate state, desperate times."

Florida's history also offers a glimpse at the answers. Until the early 1970s, bingo was the single most popular form of gambling in the United States but, as in many states, it was illegal in Florida except at church fundraisers and charity bingo halls. In 1971, Florida joined other states and started to legalize it, limiting jackpots to $100.

That all changed in 1979, when the Seminole Tribe of Florida pioneered the sale of tax-free cigarettes and was the first to defy the state limit on bingo. It opened a 1,200-seat bingo hall on its Hollywood reservation with nightly prizes totaling as much as $60,000.

The Indian tribe that a century ago faced extinction and 40 years ago depended on handouts from politicians soon transformed itself into a potent commercial force, now one of the largest conglomerates in Florida.

The tribe's games also launched two decades of lawsuits that would lay the legal groundwork for legalized Indian gaming in the United States. The bingo games were soon converted at tribal casinos to video lottery terminals that, by all appearances, operated like Las Vegas-style slots machines.

The tribe expanded its presence by adding small reservations in Immokalee and Tampa. It bought nine acres in Hillsborough County for a sacred shrine and cultural center and, after getting federal approval, built a 1,400-seat bingo hall and a cigarette shop that now is home to the state's largest casino, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

The tribal casinos became the critical catalyst that helped sell voters in 2004 to approve of Class III, Las Vegas-style, slot machines in Florida. With the arrival of Class III slot machines, the tribe then earned the right to ask for more games in exchange for revenue sharing.

The second contributing factor in the shift in public attitude about gambling came from the arrival of the Florida Lottery in 1988. In 2008, more than $4.2 billion was wagered on lottery tickets. In the last 20 years more than $20 billion has been channeled to the state's educational enhancement trust fund, lottery officials say.

Today, Florida not only has lottery billboards proclaiming the state Lotto and regional Powerball lotteries, it has three horse tracks, 22 poker rooms and eight tribal gaming casinos. Since 2005, casinos have installed more than 4,400 slot machines at Broward's four parimutuels and the newly opened Magic City Casino at Miami's Flagler dog track and paid a tax of 50 percent on their profits. If legislators approve a gambling compact with the Seminoles next year, the tax rate for parimutuels will drop to 35 percent and the casino money will continue to be steered to cash-strapped school districts.

Florida's gambling history is now at another crossroads. The state's elected leaders can either accept the compact and limit gambling to expansion only on Seminole reservations or allow all parimutuels to compete with them.

Jim Shore, the Seminoles' lawyer, warns what would happen if the state rejects the compact: "If they add additional games, then we will quit paying them and we might as well say we are a full-blown Las Vegas state."

And with that in mind, legislators will soon be deciding what kind future they want to bet on.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at

Gambling's long history in Florida 11/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 7:26pm]
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