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Hedge your bets: Legal opinion threatens to sink gambling bill

Lawmakers cannot allow sports betting, among other things.

Fighting what he called “dubious legal theories and bogus interpretations,” the lead backer of last year’s successful “voter control of gambling” constitutional amendment has told top lawmakers they can’t put forth a gambling bill with new games this year — because they first must get voter approval.

In a Tuesday letter to Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker José Oliva, John Sowinski — president of Voters in Charge, the political committee behind the amendment — shared a legal opinion from lawyer Paul Hawkes, a former lawmaker and appellate judge and now a lobbyist for the greyhound industry.

Hawkes said that under Amendment 3, lawmakers cannot authorize sports betting or designated player games (a hybrid of poker and blackjack offered in pari-mutuel card rooms), or allow slot machines permit-holders to move their slots to another location.

Rather, a majority of voters has to say ‘yes.’

“The design of Amendment 3 and the voters’ intent in overwhelmingly enacting it is clear – that voters, not elected officials – ‘shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling in the state of Florida,’ ” Hawkes wrote in an attached opinion letter.

“The conclusions provided herein are not in any way new or novel,” Hawkes added. “They are consistent with discourse of the campaigns for and against Amendment 3, and the campaign in favor of 2004’s Amendment 4 legalizing slot machines ‘within existing, licensed pari-mutuel facilities.’ ”

Spokeswoman Katie Betta told Florida Politics on Tuesday that the Senate “had not actually received this letter until we saw your email.

“I gave the letter and memo to the President,” she added. “He will review the memo today, but as this time he is not able to offer a specific comment.”

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican and next in line to assume the Senate Presidency in 2020, has been negotiating with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and pari-mutuel interests in the hope of producing another comprehensive gambling bill for 2019 that would include a renewed gambling revenue-sharing agreement with the Tribe.

Simpson has said if a bill is filed, it would be by Friday.

Among provisions discussed so far have been allowing craps and roulette at all of the Tribe’s facilities in Florida and exclusive rights to offer internet gambling.

In return, the pari-mutuels — their competitors — could get a 10% reduction in the tax they pay on any slot machines they have, the ability to keep their card rooms open 24 hours and an OK to offer sports betting.

Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ staff has since let it be known that he won’t sign a bill if it has internet gambling in it, however.

And now, Sowinski — who referred questions back to his letter — says sports betting may as well be off the table too, absent the assent of the people. Sowinski also heads the No Casinos organization.

“The intent of Florida voters is clear and must be respected,” he wrote in his letter. “A number of rumored expansion scenarios fall outside of the narrow discretion and narrow exception provided in Amendment 3.

“The message sent by 71% of Florida voters who supported Amendment 3 couldn’t be clearer: They don’t want gambling expanded by legislative fiat. They want voters in charge.

“And by their vote, that is the law of Florida today. Florida’s Constitution now requires that the desires of gambling interests be subordinate to the will of the people. Any legislation on this matter should respect this mandate.”

Hawkes separately wrote that sports betting and designated player games in particular can only be OK’d by a “citizen initiative.” He further wrote that “slot machine licenses are, and shall always be, site specific, unless voters amend” the state constitution.

Billionaire real estate developer Jeffrey Soffer owns Miami Beach’s famed Fontainebleau Resort. Speculation arose, when he bought what was then called the Mardi Gras Casino and Race Track last year, whether he wanted to move the slots license from the Hallandale Beach track to the Fontainebleau.

At the time, Soffer said, “such a move is both illegal and not in the cards ….

“I just like the real estate … I like the business,” he told the Miami Herald. “I think it’s a good opportunity.” The property has since been rebranded as The Big Easy Casino.

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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