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Don Gaetz Backs Statewide Vote on Casinos

December 12, 2013 - 6:00pm

Senate President Don Gaetz said Thursday voters should probably weigh in on whether the state opens the door to Las Vegas-style casinos, posing another hurdle for out-of-state operators eager to start doing business in South Florida.

"I think you can make an argument that that's a systemic change that the people of Florida ought to have a say about," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said during a free-wheeling breakfast meeting with reporters.

Gaetz's comments make it more likely that voters will play a role in any gaming expansion next year.

House Speaker Will Weatherford last week told The News Service of Florida he is "warming up to" a constitutional amendment that would require statewide voter approval for any future gambling expansion. But Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was unclear about whether any changes approved by the Legislature next year would also have to get the voters' blessing.

"Those details have to be worked out in the future," Weatherford said this week.

But what is clear is that both the House and the Senate are considering a constitutional amendment -- or possibly more -- as part of the solution to the thorny issue of reshaping the state's gambling landscape.

Gaetz indicated that destination resorts, one of the myriad components being considered by lawmakers as they explore gambling ideas, would be a sweeping enough change in state policy to require a statewide referendum. That could mean a second question for voters to decide in November.

Gaetz said "localized issues" might not necessarily require a statewide referendum. A destination resort in Miami-Dade County could be considered a local matter, Gaetz said.

But when pressed, he conceded that even a single hotel casino in a lone county could represent a marked shift in the state's gambling policy.

"I think it could be. We don't have destination casinos other than on Native American land right now. So if we opened up to two or three or I don't know. It's hard then to say we're going to do it in Miami but nobody else need apply. So in effect you've made a decision to get in the destination casino business. I think you can make an argument that that's a systemic change that the people of Florida ought to have a say about," he said. "I tend to sit on the side of asking people what they think."

Lawmakers drew fire for placing 11 proposed constitutional amendments, many of them politically charged, on the 2012 ballot.

Gaetz said he and Weatherford last year pledged not to "litter up the Constitution or the ballot with a bunch of crap, a bunch of issues de jour, a bunch of political stuff."

But the gambling proposals now under discussion are different, he said.

"This is not like a political issue where you've got one side using a constitutional issue to try to posture and get people to the polls or something like that. If we did a major expansion of gambling, that's a significant change," Gaetz said.

Some destination resort proponents are hoping that voters have warmed up to the idea of Las Vegas-style casinos in an already gambling-rich state home to eight Indian casinos offering slots, blackjack and other tabled card games; 27 pari-mutuels, including two dozen that also have poker rooms and seven facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that also have slot machines; a state lottery; and "cruises to nowhere" with unregulated and untaxed casino gambling three miles offshore.

A sweeping gambling bill that included up to three destination resorts went nowhere during the 2012 legislative session, prompting Malaysian-based casino giant Genting Group to back a ballot initiative. Genting later abandoned that route after it became clear lawmakers would again tackle the issue during the 2014 session.

Resorts World Miami, linked with Genting, owns property in downtown Miami it hopes to transform into one of the stand-alone casinos.

Including destination resorts in the gambling framework is a plus, said Resorts World Miami lobbyist Brian Ballard.

"Obviously, the Senate president is going to have a huge amount of sway on the final outcome. At first blush, I'm just glad he's talking about destination resorts being part of the mix. As far as a referendum goes, we're open to any and all solutions," Ballard said. "It's certainly appealing that the concept of destination resorts seems to be gaining either support or a recognition that it is going to be an important part of this package at the end of the day."

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