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Class size cost could revive gambling option

By approving a constitutional amendment to limit class sizes, voters may have opened the door to a money-raising option they previously rejected.

More gambling.

Gov. Jeb Bush and incoming House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, who have been against expanding legalized gambling in Florida, said Monday they would not rule out allowing video lottery terminals in parimutuel facilities to pay for smaller classes. Both men continue to oppose raising taxes, and reducing state spending to pay for smaller class sizes would require deep cuts in social services and other areas.

Incoming Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville has previously supported expanded gambling. He said Monday it is illogical to call Florida a nongambling state.

"We've got 19 cruise ships to nowhere," said King, referring to floating casinos that set sail for international waters before opening up the gaming tables.

But even he's not completely sold on expanding gambling to lower class sizes.

"I'm not saying we're going to do that," King said. "We're going to evaluate it."

Supporters of allowing video lottery terminals in the state's dog tracks, horse tracks and jai alai frontons say it could raise as much as $1.5-billion a year. State estimates put that figure between $600-million and $1-billion.

Bush has consistently opposed any new forms of gambling in Florida. Last year, he vetoed legislation that would have raised the pot limits in poker rooms at Florida race tracks. But he signaled Monday he would not discourage free discussion over how to pay for smaller class sizes.

"I'm going to allow ideas to come forth for a while," Bush said. "I'm opposed to tax increases, opposed to cuts in the most vulnerable, and opposed to expansion of gambling. But we have a duty to comply with this constitutional amendment. I don't have a plan yet."

Byrd also is reluctant to consider expanding gambling. But he said he would consider studying the idea to help the parimutuel industry. He said the industry has been "pounded" by internet gambling, Indian casinos and gambling cruise ships.

"I don't think we ought to build the economy of Florida on the weaknesses of Floridians. We ought to build it on their strengths," Byrd said.

But given the obstacles facing the parimutuel industry, he said, "I don't mind looking at ways to level that playing field."

One reason lawmakers are not writing off gambling as a means to pay for reducing class sizes is the cost of the amendment approved by voters two weeks ago. Some estimates peg the cost at $27.5-billion over eight years, though other estimates are less than one-third that amount.

Add to that an amendment that guarantees free pre-kindergarten to every 4-year-old and another that restructures the state university system, and lawmakers are staring a significant spending increases.

Lawmakers are months away from making any decisions about how to cover the costs. King plans to follow the advice of incoming Senate Democratic leader Ron Klein of Delray Beach and appoint a select committee to review the three major education amendments.

Miami lobbyist Ron Book, whose clients include several race tracks, said the state needs to "consider it an option as opposed to raising taxes."

"It's hypocritical to call (Florida) a nongambling state. We are the gambling state," said Book, whose clients tried to get a gambling proposal on the ballot this year.

That attempt to get voters to allow slot machines at Florida horse and dog tracks was rejected earlier this year in a 4-3 vote by the Florida Supreme Court.

The proposed constitutional amendment would have allowed voters in individual counties to approve the slot machines. But the Supreme Court found that the amendment violated the single-subject rule and lacked clarity.

Legislation to allow video lottery terminals at the state's 31 licensed racetracks and jai alai frontons failed earlier this year.

Critics have said the interest in video lottery terminals is tied to bailing out the race tracks and jai alai frontons. They have fallen on hard times because their faithful customers are dying and potential new ones are being lost to Indian gambling, cruises and trips to Mississippi.

Three times Florida voters have rejected ballot initiatives that would have increased gambling in the Sunshine State: 1978, 1986 and 1994.

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