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Court sets stage for vote on gambling

Florida voters could be asked to decide whether to allow slot machines at parimutuels in South Florida.

JONI JAMES
Published May 14, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Supreme Court cleared the way Thursday for a ballot initiative to allow slot machines at parimutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Supporters still must collect thousands of signatures, but even opponents predicted voters will see the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Floridians for a Level Playing Field, a coalition of three South Florida harness and greyhound tracks backing the proposed state constitutional amendment, already has more than half the 488,722 signatures it needs to get on the ballot.

Coalition chairman Daniel Adkins said the organization is sure it will get there.

"I can't tell you exactly how long it will take, but we ramped up our efforts two weeks ago and then again yesterday," Adkins said Thursday. "We certainly will have the signatures."

The Orlando group No Casinos Inc. criticized the court's ruling and vowed to fight the measure.

"Our sense is we're going to have to do what we do every eight to 10 years in Florida, which is pull this organization out of the cardboard boxes and remind Florida voters why they are against gambling," spokesman John Sowinski said. "It's the wrong social and economic policy for the state."

This would be the fourth time in three decades that Florida voters have considered allowing a type of casino gambling, though this year's measure is less ambitious than those proposed in 1978, 1986 and 1994. Those measures sought full-scale casinos.

The same parimutuels coalition pushed a similar initiative in 2002, but the Florida Supreme Court threw out the earlier effort, which would have allowed slot machines at parimutuels statewide. The court said it failed to meet the required "single-subject" test.

The coalition says Florida's dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons can't compete with the fast-growing, unregulated Indian casinos or the off-shore "cruises to nowhere."

The new proposal is simpler in scope and subject. It would ask voters statewide to agree to allow the county governments of Miami-Dade and Broward to hold local elections that would legalize slot machines at seven parimutuels. If the machines are taxed, the revenue would be dedicated to education.

The court's previous opinion helped guide the coalition in writing the new amendment, said Adkins, vice president of the Hollywood Greyhound Track. Other coalition members are Broward's Pompano harness track and Miami's Flagler greyhound track.

Other South Florida facilities that could benefit: Broward's Gulfstream horse track, Dania Jai-Ali, Miami-Dade's Calder horse track and Miami's Jai-Alai.

"I think it is absolutely essential because of the fact that Calder is sitting 10 minutes away from the largest Indian casino in the state of Florida, Hard Rock Casino," said Calder's Tallahassee lobbyist Wilbur Brewton. "We need to have alternative gaming."

The Supreme Court said its ruling is not an endorsement of the proposal.

Under Florida law, the court can block a citizen initiative from the ballot only if it violates the single-subject rule or if the ballot summary is unclear.

While Florida has a history of rejecting expanded gambling, it's unclear how the new measure will fare because it is limited to two Florida counties and existing parimutuels there.

The 1994 measure, which would have authorized a limited number of casinos in nine counties across the state, failed 62 percent to 38 percent statewide and by a wide margin in nearly every county. But it easily passed in Broward and was defeated by 2,000 votes in Miami-Dade.

Gov. Jeb Bush opposes expanded gambling and said Thursday he would vote against the measure if it makes the ballot.

"I'm not going to spend a lot of time campaigning against it but I will do my part to tell people that it will hurt tourism and increase crime," Bush said. He won't do more because he's busy with his brother's re-election bid, he said.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this story.

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