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With elementary school as background, Crist makes pitch for gambling deal

MIAMI — Facing resistance from lawmakers to a $1.1 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe, Gov. Charlie Crist ditched Tallahassee on Thursday to visit a struggling Little Havana school that he said would benefit from the money.

Crist didn't make his pitch directly to the Riverside Elementary Community School teachers or students. He made it to a troop of television cameras.

"It will put more money into education for this hard-working principal and, more importantly than that, for the children at this school and others around the state," he told a media gaggle after climbing the school's steps.

At Riverside Elementary, Crist praised students who were rapping the multiplication tables, thanked teachers for their hard work and shook hands with parents. But some of them didn't share his enthusiasm for allowing the tribe to expand its Las Vegas-style slots in exchange for $1.1 billion over two years.

"Gambling is not good for society. It's an addiction," said Octavio Ochoa, who was picking up his 5-year-old son, Xavier. "If they have the will, they will find another way to pay for education."

"Gambling is very negative, and I wouldn't want to expand it," said third-grade teacher Jorge Carabeo, though he welcomed the opportunity for students to show off their knowledge of pronouns to the governor.

On Wednesday, Crist tried to unhinge stalled budget negotiations by offering a $1.1 billion cash advance from the Seminole Tribe as an upfront payment for part of the proceeds of a 25-year gambling deal.

The deal would allow the Seminoles to continue running blackjack tables at their Hard Rock casinos, plus five other tribe sites, and it would give the tribe the exclusive right to operate Class III slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

But legislators, with few exceptions, roundly rejected the idea. House and Senate budget negotiators traded proposals for the state's $66 billion budget without even acknowledging the offer. The Senate's latest offer was for $504 million in gambling revenue, while the House remained at $400 million.

"It was a nonstarter," said Sen. Dennis Jones, the Senate's lead budget negotiator. "It's just smoke and mirrors. We're looking for long-term solutions for Florida to retain income. Anybody can put stuff on their credit card, but you've got to pay it back."

Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and House point man on the issue, said he told Crist he wasn't prepared to recommend the Legislature accept the offer.

Crist's pitch recalled the 2003 campaign by slot machine backers, who used school funding as a selling point for a constitutional amendment paving the way for gambling referendums in Miami-Dade and Broward.

Before he left Tallahassee, Crist said of his trip to the school, "It certainly works out very well as a backdrop to the importance of accepting the compact money."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

With elementary school as background, Crist makes pitch for gambling deal 04/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 12:21am]

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