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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Dec. 3, 201312:00 PM EST

House speaker weighs letting voters decide gambling growth

by: Dara Kam

House Speaker Will Weatherford is developing a 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 future 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. Like other constitutional amendments, 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 altogether.

His proposal would be linked in theory to a comprehensive gambling bill that could include a rewrite of the state's gambling laws and regulations and the creation of a gambling commission.

"We've been having expansion under our noses for the last decade or two," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "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.

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. 

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.

The constitutional amendment should remain separate from the overall gambling package, said Richter, R-Naples.

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