Voters may have say in expanded gambling

Senate to add ideas to casino proposal mid-January


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After four public hearings from one end of the state to the other, state lawmakers are about to have serious discussions on expanded gambling, and there's a 50-50 chance voters will have the final say.

The Senate expects to begin adding concrete ideas to the casino proposal in mid-January.

The Florida State Senate has been holding hearings across the state. There are proposals for mega resort casinos, and dog tracks say they need slots or other gambling to stay alive.

"Probably no better than 50-50 at the best," Sen. Garrett Richter said of the odds of something comprehensive passing.

The House Speaker is suggesting lawmakers rewrite gambling laws this year, then require a vote of the people to make any changes after that, but he's opened the door for sending the whole question on gambling to the public.

"Anything is a possibility in this process, you know, and I think there are a lot of people who think maybe we ought to freeze things in stone so that we don't have to come back every year," said Sen. John Thrasher, member of the gaming committee.

Florida voters said no to expanded casinos in 1986 and again in 1994. In 1994 after spending $16 million, pro-gambling forces only got 38 percent of the vote.

Pat Roberts ran the 1994 pro-gambling campaign. He believes voters could say yes this time if new casinos were limited to Southeast Florida.

"My gut is that's an easier thing to get done with this legislator, because they could say we gave the people a choice in November instead of them doing it," Roberts said.

Roberts may be right. In 2004 voters statewide, by a narrow margin, allowed Miami-Dade and Broward County to have their own votes on slot machines.