Supporters and opponents of the referendum that would expand legal slot machines in Broward County agreed on one thing Tuesday night -- the state Legislature can't be trusted when it comes to education funding in South Florida.
At debates in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood, the question of whether voters should approve Las Vegas-style slot machines focused on disappointment with the history of legal gambling in Florida, recognition that it is present in many forms already, and a mixture of worry and hope for increasing it in the future.
Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs and Commissioner Ilene Lieberman squared off at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, making their cases before about 30 local business leaders.
And about 140 people turned out in at the Hollywood Beach Community Center to watch Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti and Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper trade shots and sometimes-personal barbs over the issue.
"There are no guarantees, particularly with regard to what the losses and gains are going to be," said Jacobs, the only member of the county commission to vote against bringing the March 8 slots referendum before voters. "We are being shortchanged by having a vote on this issue before the Legislature acts."
Jacobs said the measure came with a lot of empty promises about increased funding for schools and benefits to the Broward economy, promises that may or may not materialize, depending on how the state Legislature decides how legalized slots would work.
She recalled the state lottery, which she called a "giant hoax" that was supposed to benefit education but in reality provided no extra money for school systems across the state.
Lieberman, a supporter of the referendum, agreed that the state has shortchanged schools, but argued this was precisely why voters should approve expanded gambling in the county.
"The lottery was totally controlled by the legislature," she said. "That's exactly why we shouldn't let the Lgislature control this issue."
Agreements between pari-mutuels and the nonprofit Florida School Boards Association guarantee that 30 percent of the revenues from slots would go to fund the state's schools, Lieberman said.
Vote no, she warned, and the Legislature could easily ban any deals with the pari-mutuels and leave Broward County in a weaker position when the subject comes back up in two years.
Lieberman also said slots are already here -- at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the Coconut Creek Casino, and on the "cruises to nowhere," which take gamblers far enough out to sea so that state gambling laws have no effect.
The only difference, she said, is that those slots are unregulated, and Broward doesn't get a dime of revenue.
If approved, the measure would bring slots to seven existing pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Lieberman, who personally opposes gambling, said approving slots would be a boon to the local economy and help education.
Jacobs, who did not want to cast the vote as a moral issue, nonetheless raised concerns about gambling addiction and the possible negative effect on senior citizens.
In Hollywood, Giulianti argued that any benefit of legalizing slots would be short-lived and not widespread.
In opposing the measure, Giulianti was joined by anti-gaming lobbyist Dan Lewis. Joining Cooper, the Hallandale mayor, were lobbyist Alan Koslow and Dan Atkins, vice president of the Hollywood Greyhound track.
"I'm very disappointed that Mayor Cooper has chosen to be so parochial on this issue, because this proposal will not benefit all of Broward County."
Cooper, whose city is expected to reap millions in new taxes and fees if racetracks are granted slot machine licenses, called Giulianti's stance an "offense" to the people of Hallandale Beach.
"I'm a paid lobbyist for our residents," Cooper said.
She also complained that Hollywood has endorsed widespread development without considering the effect on neighboring towns.
Atkins said gambling already exists in Broward, and local governments should benefit from it.
"Right now all that money stays with the Indians and with the cruise ships, and we don't see any of it," he said.
Hollywood's efforts to persuade voters to nix expanded gambling barely phased officials in neighboring Dania Beach.
They voted 4-0 Tuesday night at a commission meeting to assist Dania Jai-Alai with requests for modifications or redevelopment of the facility to make way for the slot machines if the referendum passes in March.
In return, jai-alai officials agreed to pay the city a cut of the revenue to help with increased traffic and other expenses the city may incur.
Staff Writer Lori Sykes contributed to this report. Rafael Olmeda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4207.