by Bill Cotterell
June 12, 2016
It was just a slip of the pen, but a legal brief filed in the state Supreme Court last week contained an amusing admonition about casino gambling in Florida.
“To recognize this change,” wrote attorneys for some dog tracks hoping to block a constitutional amendment from the 2018 ballot, “a voter must be in tune with the nuisances of Florida’s current gaming laws….”
Surely, they meant “nuances.” The nuisances of Florida law are found, in pinstriped profusion, in the House and Senate, and in the lobby between them, 60 days a year.
The matter before the court will be one of the most important issues ever put before voters by petition initiative, if the justices let it to go forward, and if the No Casinos Inc. organization can verify about three-quarters of a million voter signatures by February of 2018.
The proposal would require statewide voter approval before the state could expand casino gambling in ways not previously approved by referendum. That would exempt “gaming” like the state lottery, which was authorized by voters in 1986, or slot machines in most Miami-Dade and Broward County pari-mutuel tracks, permitted by a 2004 constitutional amendment.
The Supreme Court doesn’t rule on the pros or cons of a petition initiative. Once sponsors reach 10 percent of the required number of signatures, the attorney general requests a ruling on only two questions: Does the proposal deal with a single subject, and does its ballot summary adequately inform voters what it’s about?
Lawyers then make a lot of money trying to convince at least four justices that the amendment should be blocked from the ballot, or should proceed.
Casino gambling is one of those Capitol constants that just keeps coming back session after session, like worker’s compensation, medical malpractice, gun bills or Gwen Margolis (although the dean of the Senate bowed out of her re-election bid last week).
Multi-national gambling interests in Malaysia and Las Vegas want to turn Florida into their next big crap shoot. Established tourism businesses like Disney don’t want the state to lose the wholesome, family-entertainment image they have spent decades – and tens of millions – to promote around the world.
The House and Senate have commissioned costly economic-impact studies and held hearings all over the state in recent sessions. There have been omnibus bills, running hundreds of pages, to create a Department of Gaming that would regulate everything from the old folks’ bingo and state lottery to giant “destination resort” casino complexes.
Casino lobbyists promise jobs and new revenue for hard-pressed cities and counties. The horse, dog and jai-alai interests struggle for pieces of the action, while the Native American tribes negotiate billion-dollar side bets.
They’ve rolled snake eyes in recent sessions. At least three times since 1978, voters have turned down riverboat gambling, Las Vegas-style casinos and county-option gimmicks. Just before lawyers filed their briefs on the “Voters In Charge” amendment last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a hotly disputed effort to put slot machines at a little track near Gretna.
Gadsden County had a local referendum that went lopsidedly in favor of slots, but the Legislature has not authorized counties to expand gambling on their own. But that’s a whole different proposition.
If the Supreme Court finds that the “Voters In Charge” amendment deals with a single subject, and that it’s ballot summary is sufficient, the proposal will still face long odds. First, it will need to get enough voter signatures to get on the 2018 ballot, where it will compete for attention with races for governor and the U.S. Senate – as well as, possibly, a referendum on solar energy, and who knows what else.
The gambling interests have tons of money to fight the amendment, which will require 60 percent public approval for passage. The last thing they want is to have to win a statewide referendum, every time they want to expand gambling, rather than just spreading campaign contributions among a relative handful of top legislators to get their way.
The first sentence of the pending ballot summary is a strong selling point. It says, “This amendment ensures that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling by requiring that in order for casino gambling to be authorized under Florida law, it must be approved by Florida voters pursuant to Article XI, Sect. 3, of the Florida Constitution.”
That is, the section providing for a statewide referendum.
It’s very tempting. Who wouldn’t want to give the public control of gambling, considering the great job the Legislature has done with it up to now?
Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat reporter who writes a twice-weekly column for the paper.