TALLAHASSEE – House Speaker Will Weatherford is developing a new plan that could provide cover for Republican House members reluctant to expand gambling as the Legislature takes up the thorny issue during the upcoming session.
Weatherford wants to put a constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot that would let voters decide if they should weigh in on the expansion of gambling.
The proposal, still being developed, would set in stone any changes lawmakers agree to during the 2014 session and require statewide approval of any future gambling expansion. The proposal would require 60 percent approval by voters to pass.
Weatherford said it’s part of the “holistic look at gaming” the Legislature is undertaking that includes a swath of issues from casino-style resorts to blackjack at South Florida tracks to getting rid of greyhound racing.
“I have become over the years very concerned with the drip, drip, drip expansion of gaming that’s taken place in the state of Florida. I am certainly warming up to the idea of having a constitutional amendment that would require all future expansion to go before the voters. I’m very, very intrigued by that concept,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told The News Service of Florida on Monday.
Weatherford’s proposal would be linked in theory to a comprehensive gambling bill that could include a rewrite of the state’s gambling laws and regulations, the creation of a gambling commission and, possibly, a kitchen-sink of elements sought after by existing race tracks and frontons as well as destination resorts coveted by out-of-state casino operators.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is leading a group of conservative Republicans backing the idea of the constitutional amendment. House Select Committee on Gaming Chairman Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, is Weatherford’s chief negotiator on the sweeping gambling legislation.
“Everything is on the table,” Weatherford said. “I’ve always been anti-expansion and continue to believe that unfettered expansion of gaming in Florida is bad for the state and bad for the citizens. However, we’ve been having expansion under our noses for the last decade or two. And it’s been uncoordinated. It’s been unstructured. The Legislature hasn’t had its hands on the wheel. We have an opportunity to do that this year.”
The possibility that 2014 could be the last opportunity for the Legislature to sign off on gambling changes without a statewide referendum intensifies the gambling industry’s push to have myriad issues resolved during the upcoming session.
“There’s no question that if everyone believed any future expansion after the 2014 session required a statewide vote, all the gaming interests would do whatever they could to try to include anything they could in the comprehensive legislation,” said lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents Las Vegas Sands, one of the casino operators pushing lawmakers to approve at least one convention-style hotel and casino in Broward or Miami-Dade counties.
An overhaul of the state’s patchwork quilt of gambling laws would likely rein in regulators at the Division of Business and Professional Regulation who have approved a variety of controversial practices such as barrel racing.
The bill may also include an effort to buy back or revoke dormant licenses and stop pari-mutuels from using licenses at one facility to operate card games or other activities somewhere else. And it could include lower tax rates for the pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
“What I believe is a very smart way to go is to fix the problems that are now existing in the gaming laws, consolidate them, streamline them, expand where it makes sense for both Florida’s brand and Florida’s economy, contract them where markets have gone away and it doesn’t make sense,” said lobbyist Brian Ballard, who represents Palm Beach Kennel Club, which is hoping to get slot machines, as well as Resorts World Miami LLC, the Malaysian casino giant pushing for a destination resort in downtown Miami. “In other words, let’s fix it now, let’s pull up the ladder and say that’s it, we’re done. We’ve reformed the system. Now the people will decide whether there’s going to be an expansion or contraction of gaming. I think that makes absolute sense.”
But enshrining the new laws so quickly into the constitution could be problematic.
For example, the gambling package is also expected to address problems with a new law banning Internet cafés now being challenged in court by senior arcade operators.
“You’re going to reform 100 years of pretty poorly written law. And then on top of that you’re going to say this is it and any changes require a constitutional amendment so we better be right. There won’t be a tweak in the statute to fix things down the road. It’s a great theory. It makes a lot of sense in theory. I worry about some unintended results. We just have to make sure whatever passes this year is done well,” Ballard said.
Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter said he has heard of Weatherford’s constitutional amendment but not spoken with his House counterpart about it yet.
“One of the things that became clear in the public hearings is that the voters want a referendum. So the distinction becomes whether it’s a statewide referendum or a local referendum. I’m not prepared to say where I would have a preference or not. But what did come through is that communities want to have a referendum ahead of an expansion of gaming in their communities,” Richter, R-Naples, said.
The constitutional amendment should remain separate from the overall gambling package, Richter said.
“I don’t think that initiative should draw the attention away from or to the objective to come up with something responsible for the state of Florida in the gaming arena,” he said. “Really what we’ve got to do now is determine what kind of meat we want to put on the bones. Whether it simply clarifies existing statutes or expands gaming or creates a gaming commission … remains to be seen. But I think the next step … is to begin to develop that legislation and then have people take a stance either for or against.”