After striking out in the Florida Legislature this spring, gambling interests appear to be taking steps to seek direct approval from the state's voters for building Las Vegas-sized casino resorts..
Tallahassee lawyer and political consultant John French filed paperwork last week with the state creating a Political Action Committee called "New Jobs and Revenue for Florida" — with the purpose of holding a statewide constitutional referendum on gambling.
No Casinos, a group that successfuly combated proposed legislation this year that would have authorized the resorts, sent an email blast on Monday headlined "They're BAAAAACK!"
John Sowinski, head of the anti-gambling group, said he wants the referendum plans made public as soon as possible. The referendum question would be placed on the fall 2014 ballot if pro-gambling forces are able to fulfill certain formalities.
"When you're on the 'no' side, the sooner public discussion starts, the better," Sowinski said. "People tend to find reasons to be against things, not for things, and the gambling issue tends to hemorrhage over time."
French would not say who is behind the pro-casino PAC, or whether its exact goal is to reprise the failed efforts by major casino groups — namely Las Vegas Sands, Genting and Wynn Resorts — to open Florida to full-scale casinos.
"Can't even go there yet," he said in an interview. But the paperwork noted the PAC's purpose: "Statewide constitutional initiative, re: gaming."
The effort to change state law to permit destination casinos — with games like roulette, blackjack and craps — became the highest-profile issue of the 2012 legislative session. Lawmakers, business lobbying groups and gambling companies dueled back and forth on the merits of creating such gambling emporia in South Florida.
Central Florida tourism interests led by Walt Disney World and the Florida Chamber of Commerce; social conservatives, and the state's pari-mutuel industry and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, whose gambling interests would have faced new competition, all lined up to kill the bill. They will likely join forces again if the new PAC's intent is to ask voters directly to approve the same plan.
"Unlike other places that have legalized casino gambling, we in Florida actually have something to lose," Sowinski said. "We have a family-friendly tourism brand, and already existing economy [as opposed to places like Bilioxi, Miss.]."
There have been three previous statewide attempts to approve casino gambling — in 1978, 1986 and 1994 — and none garnered more than 39 percent approval. Meanwhile, voters ratcheted up the bar for amendment changes in 2006, now requiring 60 percent approval instead of the previous 50 percent.
"It's not going to pass but what's important is that if you look at the numbers you notice every time there's a little more support," said Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University professor who is an expert in gambling issues. Extrapolating the increase in pro-casino support, he gave a speech in February called "The Future of Gambling in Florida: Get Ready for Destination Casinos in 2042."
"The history in this state is if you have enough money and keep knocking on the door, you'll eventually get the change. It just takes time and money," Jarvis said. "The question is whether it's worth them to keeping putting the money.
"You knew this was coming," the professor said.
In order for a referendum question to be placed on the ballot, supporters must gather signatures totaling 8 percent of the turnout in the last presidential election. With turnout high in Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, that means 676,811 signatures are required — up from 429,000 in 1994, Sowinski said.
Also, the state's deadline for gathering signatures has been moved up. The signatures must be certified by Feb. 1 of the election year. It used to be Aug. 1.
Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands, said that Sands executives are still deciding on their next step, but keeping a close eye on developments in the state, including any efforts to put a gambling question on the ballot.
"They're still engaged, would still very much like to see Florida as a destination-resort destination," he said. "I think they're in a little bit of a wait-and-see mode right now."
Genting Malaysia, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a downtown Miami property it wants to convert to a resort casino, has previously said it would back a statewide referendum. Representatives of the company said Monday that they had no comment.
Florida currently has slot machines at horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and poker is legal at all of the state's pari-mutuels.
The Seminole Tribe also operates seven casinos, five of which have blackjack and other table games, but no craps or roulette.
This year, state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, had sought to let counties decide whether or not to allow destination casinos into their regions, but the legislation never got off the ground.
Though the Florida Senate leadership backed the bill, it was dead on arrival in the Florida House. Fresen had to withdraw the bill from its first committee, because it did not have the votes to move forward.
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