State Politics

Skepticism surrounds gaming-funded education

By MICHAEL R. VASQUEZ

The Miami Herald

In the name of improving education, Florida voters have twice expanded gambling, first with the introduction of the lottery in the 1980s, and more recently by bringing slot machines to Miami-Dade and Broward parimutuels.

Now, Gov. Charlie Crist hopes to convince state lawmakers to approve more gambling through a compact with the Seminole Tribe, with the new revenues going to — where else? — education. Under the compact, the tribe could continue to offer blackjack games and would be the only choice for slot machines outside of South Florida.

The tribe is offering at least $2.5 billion to the state in return, with an up-front lump sum of $1.1 billion over the next two years.

“Do this for the children of Florida,” Crist said last week.

Yet the history of education funding in the state shows that gambling money has, at best, a mixed track record when it comes to improving the quality of schools.

After billions of lottery dollars flowed to state coffers, Florida’s schools today are in dire straits — arguably the worst condition in recent memory. Slot machines — narrowly approved by a statewide referendum in 2004 — haven’t saved education either.

Former state lawmaker and Florida University President Talbot “Sandy’’ D’Alemberte drafted the lottery initiative that went to voters in the 1980s. He now calls it a “fraud” on the people of Florida.

“We’re not getting any lift out of gambling,” D’Alemberte said. Lottery money enabled the Legislature to increase spending on things that have nothing to do with education, D’Alemberte said — like building prisons.

So what happened?

For one, gambling money has never been plentiful enough to prop up the state’s education system — and likely never will be. Florida’s sales tax-driven general revenue fund is the backbone of education spending, though pro-gambling forces typically leave out this fact when promising to help fund schools.

Making matters worse: state lawmakers, in effect, broke their promise with the lottery.

Billed as a way to improve education, the money over time was used to simply replace existing education dollars, with little net gain for schools. That is, the gambling cash supplanted state education money — it didn’t supplement it. “

I hear that complaint all the time . . . what happened with the Florida Lottery?” state Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican, said. “The Florida Lottery taught us a lesson on what not to do.”

When adjusted for inflation, state government spends less per pupil now than it did in 1990 — two years after the lottery began. Overall per-pupil spending has increased somewhat, but that’s because the local property-tax contribution to schools has shot way up.

In fact, last year marked the first time that local school districts became the primary funding source for grades K-12. Although Florida’s constitution requires the state provide a “high quality’’ education, the state now only foots 48 percent of the per-pupil cost.

Others defend the lottery as more beneficial than people realize. The state’s popular Bright Futures scholarship program was started with lottery dollars, and is still funded primarily by lottery players.

Bright Futures’ cost this year: more than $435 million, about 90 percent of which came from the lottery.

“People think of education and they think of per-pupil funding,” said state Rep. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who also holds an outreach-related job at Florida International University. “Education means a lot of things.”

Slot machines at Broward County parimutuels are a more recent phenomenon, and so far have only produced a fraction of the education dollars netted by the lottery. But slots money, too, hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.

During the run-up to the 2004 vote, slots backers projected the machines would produced at least $438 million for education in the first year.

Slots arrived in late 2006/early 2007. Hampered by a sluggish economy, a delay in bringing the machines to Miami-Dade — voters there at first rejected slots, then later approved them — and other factors, slots have brought in less than a third of the tax revenue originally predicted.

“Nobody anticipated the economic downturn that has befallen our state and the country,” said lobbyist Ron Book, who represents both gaming interests and the Miami-Dade school district in Tallahassee. Book said slots nevertheless helped soften the blow to education during these lean times.

But the modest contribution from slots wasn’t nearly enough to rescue Florida’s education budget. That budget has been slashed considerably as state lawmakers grappled with three straight years of shrinking tax collections.

Since slots arrived, overall education funding has gone down, not up.

This decrease has complicated state leaders’ recent efforts to receive billions of dollars in federal stimulus money earmarked for education.

The federal government is requiring states that get the education money to fund both K-12 and higher education at at least 2006 levels, something Florida isn’t doing.

State officials plan to ask the feds to waive that funding requirement.

The state is expected to argue a waiver is deserved because even though the dollars devoted to education have gone down, the percentage of Florida’s overall budget spent on education will be at 2006 levels.

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