Anti-gambling measure goes on November ballot.

The “Voter Control of Gambling Amendment,” largely bankrolled by a Disney company and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, would require voter approval for any form of casino gambling.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.
Published Jan. 18, 2018

Florida voters could make decisions in the future about casino-style gambling, including slot machines, under a proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on the November ballot.

The "Voter Control of Gambling Amendment," largely bankrolled by a Disney company and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, would require voter approval for any form of casino gambling, an issue now largely controlled by the state Legislature.

Backers of the amendment, which will be on the ballot as "Amendment 3," this week topped the 766,200 petition signatures required to go before voters in November. The Florida Supreme Court last year approved the ballot language. Like all constitutional changes, the proposal requires 60 percent approval from voters in November to pass.

If ultimately approved, the proposal would give voters the "exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling" in the state. The change would require voter approval of casino-style games, such as slots, in the future.

The amendment pits the state's gambling industry — and many members of the Legislature — against anti-gambling advocates in what is expected to be a high-dollar campaign before the fall election.

John Sowinski, chairman of the Voters in Charge political committee behind the amendment, predicted that both sides would spend "millions of dollars" to persuade voters one way or the other about the proposal.

"We didn't spend what it took to make it to the ballot to leave things to chance. I would suspect that it's a significant eight-figure campaign that we will wage to support it, and if anyone wanted to come after it, I would suspect the like," Sowinski told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.

Of nearly $6.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions collected by Sowinski's committee, Disney Worldwide Services contributed $4.35 million, and the Seminoles, who operate tribal casinos, gave nearly $1.3 million. Other contributions came from the group No Casinos.

The constitutional effort comes after the Republican-dominated Legislature has repeatedly failed to agree on sweeping gambling packages in recent years.

Among the issues that lawmakers have grappled with is whether to authorize slot machines in eight counties — Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington — where voters have approved the machines in referendums.

"It's game over for the Legislature if that (constitutional) amendment gets on the ballot and passes. And at that point, we'll just be spectators in the world of gaming, which will essentially be a monopoly for the Seminole Tribe," Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has been instrumental in gambling-related legislation for eight years, told the News Service on Wednesday.

Industry representatives also foreshadowed dire consequences if the constitutional amendment passes.

"I think it will have a huge impact on our industry, because as opposed to the Legislature regulating us, we'll need 60 percent of the residents of Florida to regulate us in the future. And, as the most regulated business in the state, that just makes anything we want to do to grow our business in the future more difficult," Izzy Havenick, whose family owns dog tracks in Naples and Miami, said in an interview.

If the amendment becomes law, voters statewide would have to approve expansions of gambling even in single counties. Pari-mutuels in small counties might not have the resources to launch campaigns to get their proposals passed, critics said.

Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist who represents numerous gambling operators, said the proposal would have a chilling effect on the industry.

"The fear that they all have is that, if this No Casinos amendment passes in November, we will never have that opportunity without a statewide approval to add new product, whether it be slots or otherwise. And to try to get that approval statewide when you have Disney and the Seminole Tribe with their monopoly putting money in against any type of expansion you place on the ballot, it's going to be impossible to get those votes with the 60 percent threshold," he said.

The same day Sowinski's group announced the initiative would be on the November ballot, a Senate committee approved a gambling proposal, sponsored by Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Travis Hutson, that would legalize lucrative "designated player" card games and would allow horse and dog tracks to do away with racing but continue operating activities such as slots or cardrooms. The measure (SB 840) would also make clear that fantasy sports contests are legal in Florida.

"This is a long process," Hutson, R-St. Augustine, acknowledged before his committee voted 7-2 in favor of the bill.

Gambling lobbyists have almost given up on the prospect that lawmakers will reach a consensus on a gambling proposal before the legislative session ends on March 9.

Lawmakers have struggled to address issues related to a 20-year deal, called a compact, between the state and the Seminoles. A provision in the compact that gave the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, expired in 2015. A federal judge ruled that "designated-player" card games, authorized by state gambling regulators, effectively breached the agreement with the Seminoles, and issued a ruling allowing the tribe to continue to offer blackjack for the remainder of the deal, which ends in 2030.

Giving voters control of gambling "isn't a bad thing if we get done what we need to get done first," Galvano, who will take over as Senate president after the 2018 elections, said.

"And that's my motivator to continue to keep this issue open and alive," he said.

The Seminoles pay the state at least $250 million a year, but the designated-player games and the legalization of fantasy sports could affect whether the tribe continues the payments. How much — if any — money the state receives from the tribe is something Galvano has to consider as he prepares to take over as Senate president, he said.

"To have all that resolved prior to an amendment going on the ballot and/or passing is a more prudent course," the senator said, conceding that passage of a gambling proposal would be a heavy lift.

"Last year we got as close as I've seen us get, and it's not any easier this year," he said.