Anti-gambling amendment filed for 2016 ballot

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A proposed constitutional amendment to give voters more control over gambling was filed Tuesday.

The Voters in Charge political committee submitted the proposed language, available on the Division of Elections website.

The committee is chaired by John Sowinski, who also heads the Orlando-based No Casinos anti-gambling expansion organization.

The amendment would “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling in the state … by making citizens’ initiatives the exclusive method of authorizing casino gambling.”

The language makes clear, however, that there’s no intent to “limit the ability of the state or Native American tribes to negotiate gaming compacts (for) casino gambling on tribal lands, or to affect any existing gambling on tribal lands.”

It also says its provisions are “self-executing, and no Legislative implementation is required.”

Tuesday’s filing follows an axiom in Tallahassee: When the Legislature fails to act, an interest group is sure to pursue a constitutional amendment to do the same thing.

Filing the initiative was a “culmination of events that led us to believe this was the right time,” Sowinski said. He intends for a ballot question to go to voters in 2018.

For years, state lawmakers have punted or done last-minute scrambles on legislation to overhaul laws and regulations governing gambling.

For example, former state Sen. Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff in 2012 pushed a measure to permit three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida. That effort died.

The next year, lawmakers were caught flat-footed after a multistate investigation into Internet gambling cafés came to light that netted dozens of arrests. They hastily put together and passed a ban on the cafés.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Dana Young of Tampa, the chamber’s Republican leader, sponsored sweeping legislation to permit two destination resort casinos in South Florida and allow dog tracks to stop live racing but continue to offer slot machines, among many other provisions.

It, too, died during the session.

And there’s still uncertainty over a possible renewal of a deal between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that gives the tribe exclusive rights to offer blackjack in Florida, part of the the Seminole Compact.

Both sides are in mediation, but with a deadline days away, the Tribe on Monday sued in federal court as a fail-safe to protect its rights.

Sowinski said he believes the state constitution already prohibits gambling not specifically provided for in the constitution itself, but the amendment “clarifies that reading,” adding that “murky case law in recent years” on gambling hasn’t helped.

He added that he’ll release his committee’s donors on Nov. 10, but said his usual supporters, including Disney and the state’s chambers of commerce, don’t oppose the effort.

Sowinski also said he’s open to a fix by amendment, by lawmaking, or by a rewriting of the state constitution through the upcoming 2017-18 Constitutional Revision Commission.

The manner of getting it done is “the drill, not the hole,” he said.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.