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Economists uncertain of gambling amendment’s effect

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It’s not clear whether a proposed gambling-control amendment will help or hinder the state’s finances.

A panel of state economists stalemated this week on the financial impact of the Voter Control of Gambling amendment.

The Financial Impact Estimating Conference’s final report was hand-delivered to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Thursday.

A summary reads: “The amendment’s impact on state and local government revenues and costs, if any, cannot be determined at this time because of its unknown effect on gambling operations that have not (yet) been approved …”

Amendments are required to be reviewed for any financial effect on the state’s coffers. The state earns revenue by taxing gambling proceeds, including $150 million-$200 million yearly from slot machines.

The amendment would “ensure that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling,” the ballot summary says. It’s aiming to get on the 2018 statewide ballot.

One question that vexed panel members was whether the amendment would be “retroactive.” It’s not clear that the amendment will only prevent expanded gambling after it’s approved, or if it also could knock out some games now being played in Florida.

John Sowinski, who chairs Voters in Charge, also heads No Casinos, a gambling-expansion opposition group. The two are separate entities, however.

“One of the things that’s very clear about the amendment … is that it has no impact or very minor impact on the state fiscally,” he said. “We think it will work out to the state’s benefit, in the long run, to put voters in charge of whether certain forms of casino gambling are legal in the state.”

A case pending before the Florida Supreme Court also weighs on the amendment’s effect. Oral arguments are set for June 7.

The court is being asked to decide whether slot machines are allowed outside South Florida if local voters in a particular county approve of them.

This past session, the Legislature let die a raft of gambling-related legislation, including a measure that would have explicitly legalized online fantasy sports play.

Lawmakers also failed to approve a renewed agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. It would have allowed them continued exclusivity to offer blackjack in return for $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state.

But it also would have effectively expanded gambling, including letting the tribe add roulette and craps at their casinos.

“It’s only in recent years that murky case law has given rise to the idea that the Legislature can legalize forms of casino gambling,” Sowinski said. “This amendment will make crystal clear that voters should be in charge of legalizing new forms of casino gambling in this state.”

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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.

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