Activists involved in the March 8 referendum on slot-machine gambling launched a counterattack this week with e-mail blasts and voter guides responding to the pari-mutuel industry that so far has dominated debate.
The Broward County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations began this week e-mailing its 40,000 members to urge them to vote against slots. At the same time, the Christian Coalition printed 200,000 voter guides to distribute to area churches that detail the pros and cons of slots, in an effort to get religious conservatives to the polls.
Leaders of the push to allow slots at the seven racetracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties suspect the grassroots appeals are part of a larger, disguised campaign. They accuse the statewide anti-gambling groups spearheading the opposition of hiding their spending and fund-raising.
"The amount of illegal activity here is unbelievable," said Stacey Brenan, spokeswoman for the pro-gambling Yes for Better Schools and Jobs. "They are operating a campaign and not following the law. The public deserves to know where they are getting the money and what they're doing with it."
Both sides are focusing their attention more on Broward rather than Miami-Dade. Neither camp says that it has written off Miami-Dade, but rather, each says it is focusing on Broward because that is where the greatest amount of public debate has been.
Slot backers have done at least four mass mailings, but opponents hope they will now get their message out.
"We don't have the money; we only have our voices and our feet to get the truth out," Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs said Tuesday. "People are beginning to wake up and understand the gross exaggerations and lies being told."
The PTA e-mail attacks the slots proposal over whether it will lead to more money for education as promised. The referendum states that taxes on the slot machines will supplement education statewide, but the Legislature has yet to set the tax rate, spell out how the money will be spent or write regulations on the gambling.
The PTA urges its members to remember the unfulfilled promises of the state lottery and to decide the state can find better ways to pay for education. "Claims of the monetary benefits to education to be derived from proceeds of casino gambling are not factually substantiated," the group's e-mail states.
The Christian Coalition will distribute 100,000 voter guides in each county.
While detailing the arguments in favor of gambling, the brochure counters with information from a study four years ago. It says the study concluded crime and gambling addiction will increase, while other businesses will suffer.
Family issues at stake
"The opponents believe that if this amendment passes, it will tarnish Florida's safe, family-friendly environment," the Christian Coalition states in the guide. The group officially has no position on the issue.
Barbara Collier, head of the Broward County Christian Coalition, said she personally thinks the election is inappropriate because legislators have not spelled out any details. She said the voter guide is designed to inform people about the family issues at stake.
Slot backers contend the opposition went too far in one of its grassroots maneuvers. Stephanie Kraft, chairwoman of the Broward County School Board and leading opponent, sent an e-mail about the referendum to about 1,000 people Monday from her School Board account.
Brenan said that was an improper use of government e-mail. Kraft defended it, saying, "Most of the people on my e-mail list have contacted me in the past about issues and are very grateful to be kept informed of educational issues."
Although campaign contribution reports have yet to be filed by opponents, it seems unlikely voters will see as many anti-slots television messages as before the statewide election in November, when a constitutional amendment was approved allowing this vote.
At that time, the Seminole Tribe, which operates casinos on its reservations, spent $5.6 million to fund an anti-slot campaign committee. Max Osceola, tribal councilman from Hollywood, said a similar effort is not planned now.