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GAMBLING BECOMES A STATE ADDICTION

Gov. Charlie Crist prides himself on being a good listener, and he wisely seeks the advice of his predecessors, Republican and Democrat alike.

So maybe it's time Crist considered some advice from Bob Graham that appeared on the pages of this newspaper a few months ago. The former governor warned against shortsighted fixes to cope with the state's current financial mess.

"If our leaders do nothing but swing a meat ax at key priorities, they will soon fall prey to snake oil salesmen who promise 'easy and painless' solutions, like casino gambling," wrote Graham, who was governor from 1979-1987.

"The second we succumb to these intoxicating promises, Florida's character will be forever altered - our future determined by the chance turn of the roulette wheel rather than the character and capabilities of our people," he wrote.

With Florida mired in a deep economic slump that shows no signs of ending, Crist could be leading a much-needed dialogue about Florida's tax structure.

Instead, he has decided to increase the state's addiction to gambling - despite promising not to do so in his 2006 campaign.

Crist proved again this week, with the solid victories by John McCain and the property tax cutting Amendment 1, that he has great political instincts.

But gambling is another story, and embracing it is a sure sign of desperation.

The spending blueprint Crist is sending to the Legislature is propped up with $405-million in new money from various forms of gambling. But most of the new money, $248-million, comes from what Crist calls "enhancements" to the Florida Lottery. These include instant-ticket lottery vending machines in high-traffic areas - low-income neighborhoods where desperate people try to bet their way out of poverty; a new $30 scratchoff ticket, and two-a-day Cash 3 and Play 4 drawings.

Crist promised as a candidate in 2006 that he would not expand gambling, and on a plane trip on Oct. 18, 2006, said he would not rely on gambling money to pay the state's bills.

"The numbers work without it," Crist said then.

Not any more, they don't.

A bigger-than-ever Florida Lottery will benefit not just Crist's budget, but also GTECH, the gaming giant that holds the exclusive contract to design and run online lottery games. GTECH's lobbyist just happens to be Crist's good friend Brian Ballard. GTECH has given $152,000 to the Republican Party since 1996.

The total includes $20,000 to the GOP in the 2006 cycle, when Crist ran for governor. (The company gave $12,500 to the Florida Democratic Party in the same period).

Taxpayer, beware: You'll hear a lot about how all this gambling revenue will "enhance" education - scratch- off lottery tickets helping to pay Junior's teacher.

Speaking of education, there's another ticking time bomb in Crist's budget - one that taxpayers can't possibly stomach.

The same governor who has been calling for property tax relief for a year would squeeze $338-million more property taxes from taxpayers next year for public schools so they aren't affected by the tax amendment he championed.

Can't we avoid that with a few thousand more slot machines?

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

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