Anti-Gambling Group Wants Florida Voters To Decide About Casinos

October 28, 2015

An anti-gambling group wants to give voters the ability to decide whether Florida should have non-tribal casinos, but the preliminary fate of the proposed constitutional amendment rests in a Supreme Court decision about slot machines at a Gadsden County horse track.

A newly-formed political committee called “Voters in Charge” announced Tuesday it has started a petition-gathering process, with an eye on getting a proposal on the 2018 ballot. If approved, the “Voter Control of Gambling” constitutional amendment would require future statewide votes to authorize casino-style games including blackjack, craps and roulette.

The amendment would take away the Legislature’s ability to approve casinos in Florida but would not affect tribal operations, which are regulated by federal law.

The committee is aiming to collect the requisite 68,314 signatures to trigger a Florida Supreme Court review by the end of the year. But whether or not Voters in Charge intends to pursue a ballot initiative ultimately rests with the court’s decision in another case, according to committee chairman John Sowinski.

“We view this as an insurance policy, frankly,” Sowinski said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether a horse track in the Gadsden County community of Gretna, which originally received its pari-mutuel license for rodeo-style barrel racing, can have slot machines.

The case centers on a 2009 law establishing eligibility for slot machines at pari-mutuels, an expansion of a 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment that authorized slots at seven existing horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The 2009 change allowed a Hialeah track, which wasn’t operating at the time the amendment was approved, to also operate the lucrative one-armed bandits.

The 2009 law also expanded eligibility for slots to include facilities in “any other county … pursuant to a statutory or constitutional authorization after the effective date of this section in the respective county.” The law went into effect July 1, 2010.

The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled earlier this month that Gretna Racing, operated by the Poarch Creek Indians of Atmore, cannot have slots without legislative approval.

The case has implications for several other counties — Brevard, Lee, Hamilton, Palm Beach, and Washington — where voters have approved referendums authorizing slots at local pari-mutuels. A nearly identical case is pending in the 4th District Court of Appeal, where the Palm Beach Kennel Club is also challenging the Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s denial of its application for slot machines.

In the Gadsden County case, the Supreme Court could allow Gretna to operate slots without legislative approval or decide that the Legislature must approve the slots. Or the court could rule that the expansion of slots at pari-mutuels outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties requires another constitutional change.

Sowinski said his group wants “to have a ready weapon” with the ballot proposal in case the Supreme Court decides that no constitutional action is necessary for pari-mutuels outside of the two South Florida counties to add slots.

“We want to be positioned and ready so if there is a court decision that does not affirm that the people have the final say on this, that they’ve got an amendment that makes it abundantly clear on the ballot,” Sowinski said.

The ballot initiative comes after lawmakers have repeatedly failed to sign off on “destination resorts” pushed by out-of-state casinos. Gambling giant Las Vegas Sands recently abandoned its efforts in Florida.

Voters In Charge is backed by No Casinos, a group supported by Disney World, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and a variety of tourism-related groups. Sowinski is also the president of No Casinos.

The ballot initiative could also be viewed as a shot across the bow as negotiations over a deal with the Seminole Tribe heat up.

Gov. Rick Scott’s chief lawyer, Tim Cerio, is working with Republican House and Senate leaders to craft a new agreement with the Seminoles. A deal expired earlier this summer that gave the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games like blackjack at most of its casinos.

According to sources close to the talks, the new pact would allow the tribe to have craps and roulette and also would permit the Palm Beach County greyhound track to add slots. That would be banned without statewide approval under the proposal floated by Voters in Charge.

by Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida


4 Responses to “Anti-Gambling Group Wants Florida Voters To Decide About Casinos”

  1. Willis on October 28th, 2015 9:04 pm

    Go ahead and….


  2. Sedition on October 28th, 2015 5:09 pm

    What is the stock market, and the lottery, but government sanctioned gambling?

    So why not allow other forms of gambling as well?

  3. Miklton Champion on October 28th, 2015 4:25 pm

    Six counties throughout Florida ALREADY VOTED for slot machines in their pari-mutuels. People in the panhandle are not going to drive to Miami. Plus they want the above average salaries. Common sense people, common sense…

  4. JJ on October 28th, 2015 9:59 am

    I want non tribal casinos, here in my town!

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