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Casinos on the 2014 ballot? Political committee lays the groundwork

After failing to persuade the Florida Legislature to pass a bill to open South Florida to mega resort casinos, gambling interests have taken the first steps to bring the issue directly to voters in 2014.

A political committee under the name of “New Jobs and Revenues for Florida” was created April 10 with the purpose of promoting a “statewide constitutional initiative re gaming.” The committee chairman is Tallahassee lawyer and lobbyist John French and its treasurer is political committee consultant and accountant Nancy Watkins of Tampa. Download New Jobs and Revenues for Florida Committee

The only group so far that has expressed an interest in conducting a petition drive to bypass lawmakers and go directly to voters is the Genting Group, the Malaysian-based conglomerate that has kept a low profile since a House committee knocked its chances off the legislative agenda in mid-session.  

Spokesmen for Genting said they were not aware of the initiative and the company’s top officials could not be reached for comment but the company has been the only entity to suggest a desire to bring the issue to voters.

The petition process requires that the organization get petitions signed by eight percent of the voters in the last presidential election to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. The proposal must then be approved by 60 percent of the voters.

That’s a heavy lift, especially since statewide polls showed that while support was high for the casino measure in South Florida, there was less than 60 percent support in every other region of the state. Meanwhile, voters have blocked attempts to authorize casino gambling three other times when casino initiatives were on the ballot in 1978, 1986 and in 1994.

The pari-mutuel industry won approval to bring slot machines to eight race tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons only after telling voters the new gambling venues would be limited to Miami Dade and Broward.

No Casinos, the anti-gambling group backed by Disney and Miami auto magnate Norman Braman, is ready to oppose the initiative campaign, said John Sowinski, director of the group.

“Our sense is that legislators weren’t fooled by the slick sales pitch and Florida voters won’t be fooled by it either,’’ he said. “If Genting, or whoever this committee is, filed an amendment to expanding gambling in Florida, we will put together a committee to oppose it and our sense is it will be a similar outcome.”

Genting has spent more than $500 million on real estate, including purchase of The Miami Herald building, in its quest to build a $3.8 billion bay front resort. Absent the casino approval, it said last month that it will move forward with a dramatically scaled down mixed-use plan for its Resorts World Miami.