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Backers Of North Florida Gambling Initiative Push For Court Approval

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would open the door to casinos in North Florida are urging the state Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion about whether the measure meets legal qualifications to be placed on the November ballot amid a separate court battle over whether it has garnered enough signatures to go before voters.

Florida Voters in Charge, a political committee sponsoring the proposed amendment, faced a Feb. 1 deadline to have nearly 900,000 signatures validated by state elections officials to reach the ballot. The effort was tens of thousands of signatures short of the threshold at the deadline, the state Division of Elections website showed.

But for weeks, the committee has wrangled in court with people and entities linked to the Seminole Tribe, accusing the Seminoles of unlawfully interfering with the signature-gathering effort.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper refused the committee's request for an emergency injunction to give more time to process signatures that had piled up at elections supervisors' offices but had not been validated before the Feb. 1 deadline. But the case remains pending.

The Florida Supreme Court reviews ballot initiatives to decide whether they meet such constitutional requirements as having a single subject and not being confusing to voters. The court's scrutiny is triggered when initiative sponsors submit about 223,000 signatures to elections officials. The Supreme Court has until April 1 to issue advisory opinions.

The court began the process of reviewing the casino proposal last month, but on Feb. 8 justices asked the sponsors to "show cause why this case should not be dismissed as moot." The court also asked Attorney General Ashley Moody's office and other interested parties to file briefs by Feb. 18.

In a brief filed Monday, the committee's lawyer argued that the court should move forward with the review process.

"This court's mandatory jurisdiction in initiative-review cases is triggered by a signature threshold entirely independent of the signature threshold for ballot placement in a given year," attorney Jesse Panuccio, who served as former Gov. Rick Scott's general counsel, wrote.

Panuccio also argued that the Supreme Court's review should proceed because "the signature count for 2022 is in dispute and subject to pending litigation. Accordingly, the case is not moot."

The court should decide whether the initiative meets constitutional muster to potentially appear on a future ballot, Panuccio said.

The petition "remains active, and even if it has not qualified for the 2022 ballot (a disputed proposition), it may qualify for a later ballot," he wrote in the 37-page brief.

Over the past decade, Republican lawmakers have chipped away at the citizens' initiative process, passing a number of hurdles to make it more difficult for groups to place proposed amendments on the ballot.

One of the most recent efforts shortened the time period in which petition signatures remain active. Under current law, signatures only last for one election cycle, meaning that – without judicial intervention – Florida Voters in Charge would have to start from zero if supporters want to place the proposal on the 2024 ballot.

In arguing that the court should continue the review process, Panuccio pointed out that justices previously have issued advisory opinions on initiatives that failed to obtain the required number of signatures before the deadline.

"Departing from this court's precedent would call into question the review process employed since 1988," he wrote.

The court's jurisdiction "is governed by a distinct signature threshold that, once met," entitles a sponsor of an active petition to an advisory opinion," he argued.

"Any other conclusion would render unworkable the constitutional and statutory scheme and would render incomprehensible the history of initiative cases in this court since 1988," Panuccio wrote.

The casino proposal, funded largely by Las Vegas Sands Corp., would allow existing pari-mutuels along the Interstate 10 corridor to operate Las Vegas-style games. Sands has contributed more than $73 million to Florida Voters in Charge, according to the state Division of Elections website.

The brief filed late Monday also noted that the review process "recognizes that gathering ample support for ballot placement requires a major investment of time and money."

"In the interim … initiative sponsors are entitled to learn what, if anything, is defective about the title, summary, and text of their proposed amendment," Panuccio wrote. "Moreover, the court's advisory opinion is especially important for initiatives that – like this one – seek to authorize casino gaming, because citizen initiative is the 'exclusive' lawmaking power in this sphere."

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 that requires statewide votes to authorize expansions of gambling, a power the state Legislature previously controlled.

The brief came as Florida Voters in Charge continues an effort to force Secretary of State Laurel Lee to delay certification of the final signature count until all petitions submitted prior to Feb. 2 are counted.

"FVIC (the committee) contends that the failure to process and count these signatures was unlawful, and FVIC has brought a lawsuit seeking a court order requiring the processing of these signatures and the inclusion of verified signatures in the secretary of state's count for this election cycle," Panuccio wrote in the Supreme Court brief.

The committee also maintains that "tens of thousands of signatures" have been rejected for lack of signature matches without giving voters the opportunity to cure the mismatches, Panuccio argued.

Elections supervisors have raised alarms about an extraordinarily high rate of invalid petitions for the casino proposal, with officials in some counties saying that more than half of the petitions submitted by Florida Voters in Charge's contractors have been rejected.

Lawyers for entities and people tied to the Seminole Tribe, which operates the only Las Vegas-style casinos in the state, have accused Florida Voters in Charge and its contractors of illegally paying workers by the signature. Some allegedly fraudulent petitions have been referred to state attorneys.

(©2022 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)

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