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Draw the line on moral decay

History teaches that all great nations eventually decline. Maybe so, but at barely 200 years the United States is much too young to be cashing in its chips.

But that's what we will do if we stake them on gambling as a way of life.

I'm not talking about the neighborhood poker game, the church bingo or even the occasional lottery ticket. Recreational gambling by people who know when to quit does no harm.

The faster the action, though, or the higher the stakes, the harder it is to know when to quit. That's why it seems to me to be immoral for the body politic to capitalize on gambling. It also sets a lousy example for the young people whom we expect to learn the virtues of hard work and individual responsibility.

This country built its reputation on those ethics. We also used to hate debt like vice itself.

But in the 1980s we fell for politicians who promised us prosperity without price. Something for nothing. We got it, all right _ at the expense of our children and grandchildren. Cut Medicare, Social Security and other middle-class entitlements? Tax more? Hell, no. Borrow. Let the kids pay.

That was moral rot. As the subsequent recession proved, it was also false prosperity.

Yet now the polls say we may award a majority of Congress to politicians who promise more of the same _ hypocrites from hell some of whom pretend that our biggest moral imperative is to make kids pray in school. Meanwhile, cities, counties and states throughout the country have been opting for casino gambling as a source of more jobs and taxes.

Again, something for nothing.

Few of those promises have ever been kept, either. Nowhere have the benefits of casinos been proved worth the cost in terms of stress on public facilities, police resources, existing businesses and families with problem gamblers in their midst.

Florida's turn comes Nov. 8. In what is about to become the most expensive (and one-sided) campaign in the state's history, the casino lobby is furiously peddling the fictions that we need casinos to keep our tourists, create jobs and avoid other new taxes. Any day now, they'll probably claim that an income tax is just around the corner if we don't let them have their way.

It's nonsense, all of it. Many of the new jobs would be offset by job losses at businesses edged out by the casinos. Their own figures show that more than 9 out of every 10 new dollars would be spent inside the casinos themselves. (In Gulfport, Miss., the only other new businesses are pawn shops.) The $700-million in new taxes they promise would be largely if not all spent on burdens imposed by the casinos on roads, police, social services and regulation _ none of which the casino lobby's economic geniuses was bright enough to estimate.

If tourism were a valid reason, why would so many Las Vegas casino companies be bankrolling the campaign to establish competition for them in Florida? No, folks, the suckers they're after are us. St. Petersburg's Derby Lane, one of the guaranteed casino sites, calculates full or part-time Floridians would account for two-thirds of their new business.

The casino lobby's only plausibly valid argument is that licensed casinos would cut into the unregulated and untaxed business on Indian reservations and aboard cruise ships. But that makes less of a case for 47 more casinos than it does for raising hell with Attorney General Janet Reno for a crackdown on those slot machines the Seminoles are running.

Some polite gentlemen from St. Petersburg's Derby Lane and their new partners, the Claridge Hotel and Casino Corporation, came by the office the other day to tell us their side of the controversy. Essentially it's that dog racing is a dying industry, there's an enormous demand for faster, higher-tech forms of gambling, and that if Florida votes to let them fill it, they will do it with taste.

I'm sorry to disagree, but the price of saving the dog track and satisfying the so-called demand would be to prostitute the Florida Constitution for the sake of a self-selected few. Their Amendment 8 guarantees casino licenses to the 30 existing parimutuel plants, overriding all local zoning ordinances and state land-use laws in the bargain. Each parimutuel facility originally had to win a local referendum, but Amendment 8 would give them casino licenses regardless of local preference. It is the most high-handed abuse of process I have seen in nearly half a century as a Floridian.

"It's "limited' casinos, all right," says John Sowinski, executive director of No Casinos Inc. "It's limited to those who showed up with a checkbook when Pat Roberts wrote the thing."

Florida has voted against casinos twice before but the people behind this drive plan on spending us senseless this time. Their defeat Nov. 8 would send a powerful message, not only that the Constitution of Florida is not for sale, but that the people of the nation's fourth largest state have drawn the line on moral decay.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.