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John Sowinski: Gambling proposals may violate Florida Constitution

Gambling interests have lined up in the State Capital, lobbying for their long-held dream of remaking Florida in the image of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

As the Florida Legislature considers their requests for more and bigger casinos, I would caution the following: Not so fast.

Any action the Legislature may take to expand gambling – which includes approval of a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe — could well be overturned on constitutional grounds.

The Florida Supreme Court soon will hear a case delving into this issue called “Gretna Racing, LLC v. Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.” The case specifics involve attempts by Gadsden County gambling interests to install slot machines at a pari-mutuel without legislative approval. The state claims that such approval is necessary.

No Casinos is taking the state’s position one step further, filing a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that even were it so inclined, the Legislature doesn’t have the authority to approve the slot machines.

Our position rests on the 1968 revision of the Florida Constitution that requires voter approval of any decision to expand “lotteries’’ in the state. Lotteries are defined as games of chance and take in slot machines, craps and roulette.

Former Florida Gov. Bob Graham likewise has submitted a friend-of-the-court brief supporting this position.

“In 1968, the people of Florida made clear that they did not want a handful of people or a handful of legislators to control that decision,’’ states Gov. Graham’s brief. “They wanted everyone in the state to have a voice.”

This interpretation has, until recent years, been honored. Voters rejected full-scale casino gambling in 1978, 1986 and 1994.  They approved the Florida Lottery in 1986 and narrowly approved slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward pari-mutuels in 2004.

But the constitution does not allow for slot machines in any other county, as lawmakers now are contemplating. Nor does it authorize craps or roulette, both of which would be allowed in tribal casinos under the proposed compact with the Seminoles.

We believe that legalizing these forms of gambling without an amendment approved by Florida voters would cross a constitutional line.  Not enforcing this constitutional standard would lead to an annual ritual in Tallahassee with gambling interests pressing for more gambling, quickly resulting in casino proliferation that voters have thrice rejected.

It is impossible to predict how the Florida Supreme Court will rule on an issue. But our case is strong enough for lawmakers to put gambling decisions on hold until the court decides who has the constitutional authority to decide these issues.

Otherwise, legislators will expend time, energy and political capital negotiating deals with various gambling interests, all or major portions of which could be declared unconstitutional before the end of the year.

We believe that Florida’s Constitution was written to intend that the people of Florida, not casino-industry lobbyists and their campaign contributions, should be the ones who decide the future of gambling in Florida.

John Sowinski is President of NoCasinos.org.

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