TALLAHASSEE — After spending more than $70 million and wrangling in court for months, backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would open the door to Las Vegas-style casinos in North Florida have dropped an effort to place the measure on the 2022 ballot.
The clash over the casino initiative pitted Las Vegas Sands Corp. against the Seminole Tribe of Florida and included allegations of death threats against workers gathering signatures for the ballot proposal, accusations that supporters of the measure violated state law by paying workers by the signature and feuding over the tribe’s efforts to “buy off” signature gatherers.
Las Vegas Sands contributed at least $73 million to Florida Voters in Charge, a political committee that sponsored the casino initiative, while the Seminoles spent at least $40 million to keep it from reaching the November ballot, according to the state Division of Elections website.
The initiative was designed to allow existing pari-mutuel cardrooms in North Florida to offer Las Vegas-style games. The Seminoles are the state’s sole casino operators.
After falling short of submitting nearly 900,000 valid petition signatures by a Feb. 1 deadline, the Sands-backed committee filed a lawsuit that, in part, asked Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper to extend the deadline. Cooper last month denied the request, leading the committee to file a notice of appeal at the 1st District Court of Appeal. Florida Voters in Charge dropped the appeal last week and on Friday filed a notice of voluntary dismissal of the case before Cooper.
Florida Voters in Charge “has begun the process of winding down the committee and its efforts for the 2022 election cycle,” committee spokesperson Sarah Bascom said in a prepared statement.
“While the committee believes that it submitted more than the required number of voter signatures to make the 2022 ballot, the various obstacles the committee would have to overcome in order to vindicate those voters and make the ballot — the most recent of which is the passage of a law calling into question the availability of Supreme Court review of the ballot language — makes achievement of that goal untenable,” Bascom said, alluding to an elections law that passed last month.
Bascom did not say whether the committee plans to revive the effort for 2024.
While placing what are known as citizens’ initiatives on the Florida ballot has long been an expensive endeavor, the casino proposal’s costs skyrocketed in part because of a 2019 law that made it illegal to pay signature gatherers based on the number of petitions they collect.
Florida Voters in Charge raced against the clock after the proposed constitutional amendment began circulating in June. Petitions are only valid for one election cycle, so supporters of the measure will have to start from scratch if they want to put the proposal on the 2024 ballot.
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The Sands-backed plan was one of two gambling-related initiatives that failed to garner enough signatures to reach this year’s ballot. The other proposal called for authorizing sports betting at professional sports venues, pari-mutuel facilities and statewide via online platforms.
Both measures faced significant opposition from the Seminoles, but the tribe focused on defeating the casino proposal when the sports-betting initiative did not pick up steam late last year.
The tribe unleashed a statewide television campaign knocking the gambling measures and began circulating its own petition, which carried no legal weight, expressing support for an agreement between the state and the Seminoles that lawmakers approved during a special legislative session last year.
That deal, known as a compact, would give the tribe control over sports betting throughout Florida. The compact is on hold while a Washington, D.C.-based appeals court considers a federal judge’s ruling that U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, whose agency oversees tribal gambling, lacked the authority to allow the deal to go into effect.
Florida Voters in Charge filed a lawsuit in December accusing the tribe of trying to “sabotage” the casino initiative, in part by illegally interfering with workers trying to gather signatures.
The Seminoles fired back by accusing backers of the initiative of breaking the law by paying petition gatherers by the signature.
After fierce legal battling, the Sands-backed committee dropped the lawsuit — a day before the Feb. 1 deadline to submit petition signatures to the state Division of Elections — and filed a separate legal challenge asking Cooper for more time. The lawsuit also accused supervisors of elections of sitting on piles of petitions and challenged signature-matching requirements used by local elections officials, arguing that “tens of thousands of signatures” were rejected without giving voters the chance to “cure” signature mismatches. The legal challenge also alleged that certain Florida laws governing the ballot-initiative process are unconstitutional.
Cooper in February allowed the Seminoles, a tribe-funded political committee known as Standing up for Florida Inc., and the committee’s chairperson, Pradeep “Rick” Asnani, to intervene in the lawsuit.
In a March 22 motion for summary judgment, attorneys for Standing Up for Florida said Cooper should reject the plaintiffs’ arguments. Cooper was scheduled to hold a hearing in the case on April 7.
As the legal throwdown over the casino initiative dragged on, Las Vegas Sands CEO Rob Goldstein recently acknowledged that the effort to make it on this year’s ballot was doomed.
“In Florida, we failed recently. We had a disappointing outcome, but I think it’s in early innings. We will be in Florida, in my opinion. It’s just a question of when it happens,” Goldstein told The Las Vegas Review-Journal in March.
By Dara Kam, News Service of Florida