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Sure you can play, but you just can't win

Every day, millions of people in Florida gamble on a dream when they buy a scratch-off ticket from the Florida Lottery.

Anybody who buys one is contributing to this state's growing gambling infrastructure, and to public education.

Some ticket buyers are not living here legally. They buy lottery tickets from the meager fruits of their labors — picking tomatoes in Immokalee, making up hotel beds in Kissimmee and hanging drywall in New Port Richey.

But some in the Legislature want to bar illegal immigrants from claiming a lottery prize.

Noncitizens could still play the lottery, doing their part to pay for Bright Futures scholarships and school classrooms. But they couldn't claim a prize even if they picked all six numbers.

The provision is in two bills: Senate Bill 856 by Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, and HB 219 by Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo. The bills also would require that foreign nationals who might get lucky while visiting Florida prove that they were here legally.

Adams' bill is mostly a requirement that businesses holding state contracts verify with the government that they don't employ illegals. She said the lottery language was not her idea and was put in the bill at the request of Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who chairs a House committee that recently passed her bill.

"We're just saying that if we're really serious about cracking down on illegal immigrants in this state, we're going to put in another level of protection to identify them," Schenck said.

Baker was a little more blunt. "If you're here illegally, you shouldn't reap the benefits," he said. "I have no sympathy for someone here illegally."

The bill likely won't pass.

That's just fine with Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who calls the idea absurd. Fasano said his mother was a British war bride who lived here as a permanent legal resident before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen about 10 years ago. And she played the lottery for many years before gaining citizenship.

"We certainly don't require people to show proof when they purchase a ticket," Fasano said. "Why should we make them show proof when they happen to be a winner?"

Defeat of the lottery bill would be just fine with the Florida Lottery, which opposes the legislation.

Lottery Secretary Leo DiBenigno raised two concerns.

One is that his agency is ill equipped to run citizenship checks on people. "We don't have access to those databases," he said.

Second, DiBenigno said, the purchase of a lottery ticket is, in effect, a binding contract, and court cases have suggested that if the state denied a prize to a noncitizen, it could be a breach of contract.

DiBenigno said as far as he knows, Florida would be the first state to bar noncitizens from claiming lottery prizes.

One reason the bill has such little hope of passage is that Senate President Jeff Atwater, who's running for chief financial officer, displays little enthusiasm in an election year for social wedge issues like immigration. He buried Baker's bill, sending it to seven committees, a legislative death sentence.

The chance of it passing is only slightly better than your chance of winning the lottery. The people who pick our tomatoes and clean our hotel rooms can safely keep picking numbers, at least for one more year.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

Sure you can play, but you just can't win 04/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 9:46pm]
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