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Chiles denounces extension of gambling

Florida shouldn't gamble its way out of budget problems, Gov. Lawton Chiles says.

Surrounded by law enforcement officers, preachers and National Football League officials, Chiles said Wednesday that he will veto any legislation that would extend gambling beyond the traditional horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons.

If he could, Chiles said, he would abolish the Florida lottery.

Instead of relying on games of chance, he said, legislators should pass a $1.3-billion package of taxes to use to increase financing for education, health care and other needs.

Legislators, uncomfortable about passing new taxes during a recession, are looking at sports betting, card rooms and video lottery games. They could raise as much as $600-million in gambling taxes without the controversy of a general tax increase.

State Rep. Norm Ostrau, D-Plantation, chairman of the House's Regulated Industries Committee, wants to legalize and regulate gambling that already is being done illegally in many areas of the state.

"People are playing poker illegally now," he said. "To let them play it with state regulation is not morally wrong. I wish the governor would listen to some debate on the issue. He's never even discussed it, but is posturing that gambling is bad."

Ostrau said legislators may wrap all of the gambling proposals and a revision of the state's bingo laws into a giant pari-mutuel bill. It would re-establish the state's ability to regulate pari-mutuels and transfer the Division of Pari-mutuels to the Department of Agriculture.

Chiles would be faced with vetoing the entire bill or accepting gambling.

Chiles left little doubt about what he would do if faced with an all-or-nothing package of bills that include gambling. He'll use his veto.

Ostrau said he doesn't know if legislators can get enough votes to override a veto, but he said many legislators would be more willing to approve sports betting and card rooms than pass a new tax.

Ostrau said the suggestion that Florida doesn't have gambling is ridiculous when the state has the nation's largest pari-mutuel industry and bingo games that bring in more than $1-billion a year.

Ostrau wants to regulate bingo games and require commercial halls to pay a 5 percent tax.

"We want to regulate what is happening now and take our percentage," Ostrau said. "It would cut out illegal sports betting and keep people from being faced with a bookie that will break their legs."

Chiles said it's a moral issue that goes deeper than the potential for revenue.

"Our quality of life is too important to gamble away," Chiles said. "A national recession has left too many with no hope for the future. There is never a good time to expand legalized gambling, but it's even worse for the state to profit from its citizens at a time when they can least afford it."

Chiles traced his opposition to gambling to when he was 13 years old and lost $23 at a ring toss operated at a state orange festival.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth joined Chiles in opposing measures that would allow sports betting. He said it might have a negative impact on professional teams that otherwise would move to Florida.

"Sports and gambling don't mix," Butterworth said. "If the state sponsors sports gambling, organized crime won't be far behind."

Owners of the state's professional sports franchises are vehemently opposed to sports betting and have written letters to legislative leaders denouncing the proposals.

"Gambling is bad for sports, and government should not be in the sports betting business," Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Gay Culverhouse wrote to House Speaker T.K. Wetherell.