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Slots get an unlikely backer

As as a state senator, Republican Jim Horne opposed every attempt to expand gambling in Florida and refused to take money from gambling interests. He took the same position as education secretary under Gov. Jeb Bush.

But on Monday, Horne became the paid spokesman for a group pushing to legalize slot machines at parimutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

It's to support education, Horne said.

"With four children who have attended public schools, public education has become personal to me and my family," Horne said. "Amendment 4 is not about gambling. It is about improving Florida schools."

Horne refused to say how much Floridians for a Level Playing Field is paying him, saying he is now a private businessman. Campaign finance laws will require the group to report his pay.

The group's $13-million in campaign contributions has come from horse and dog tracks and casino companies.

The group has started a Web site, Yesforlocalcontrol.com, and prepared glossy brochures touting its potential for reducing class sizes, improving teacher pay and providing science and computer labs for all schools.

A news release announcing Horne's appointment also suggested the group will use damage from the three hurricanes that have hit the state to support its position.

The amendment would allow Miami-Dade and Broward voters to decide whether slot machines could be installed at seven parimutuels. The state Constitution forbids casino gambling, so voters statewide will be asked to approve an amendment Nov. 2.

Ballot language includes a provision requiring legislators to use money raised by slot machines to supplement public education funding.

The Florida Lottery was sold to voters with the help of then-Education Commissioner Ralph Turlington as a way to raise money for schools, but voters are still angry that lawmakers used lottery proceeds to replace money shifted to other programs.

Supporters of the new amendment say it would raise as much as $438-million the first year and as much as $2.34-billion over five years. The money would be spent statewide.

Horne denied the amendment expands gambling.

"We already have gambling in Florida," Horne said. "Every time I voted no, another day cruise boat pulled into port and the Indians pulled another permit for a casino, unlicensed, unregulated and not paying a dime of tax in this state."

Senate President Jim King two years ago ran into opposition from the governor and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd when he tried to raise money for schools by allowing slot machines at all parimutuels in the state.

Bush said Monday he opposes the measure. "I don't support the amendment," Bush said by e-mail in response to an inquiry. "We have too much gambling in Florida."

Horne acknowledged that using the hurricanes to sell the measure is sensitive. "Every county has been affected," Horne said. "The point is it has affected the economy."

Horne last month resigned his $232,000 education secretary's job to return home to Jacksonville.

Some South Florida businessmen approached him about joining the slot machine campaign, Horne said.

Earl Bender, a Washington political consultant hired by supporters of the amendment to help sell it to voters, has run other amendment campaigns in Florida. Campaign finance records indicate the group has paid Bender's company, Avenel Enterprises, $62,617 since May 28.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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