Disney Bets $20 Million to Ensure Florida Isn’t the Next Vegas

(Bloomberg) -- A Florida ballot initiative this November would give voters the power to block any expansion of casino gambling, a move some argue would effectively crush gaming companies’ long and costly efforts to expand into the Sunshine State.

If approved, Amendment 3 of the Florida Constitution would require 60 percent state-wide support for any new casinos. That threshold would protect the local hegemony of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates gambling establishments under federal law allowing Native Americans to do so, and entertainment giant Walt Disney Co. Together, Disney and the Seminoles have given about $36 million to bolster the measure.

Disney Bets $20 Million to Ensure Florida Isn’t the Next Vegas

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida is trying to buy a monopoly," said Dan Adkins, who chairs Citizens for the Truth About Amendment 3, Inc., a political committee fighting the measure and funded by casinos and racetracks, among others. “Their arguments are all self serving."

In fact, both sides’ arguments are muddied by the corporate interests funding their campaigns. Indeed, Adkins himself has a day job at the Hallandale Beach, Florida, Big Easy Casino, a recently renamed greyhound racing venue that offers gaming options it would love to expand. Other opponents include MGM Resorts International, the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a sod farming company -- South Florida Sod Farm, LLC -- that happens to share an address with the Miami Dolphins.

The football teams declined to comment on whether their opposition to the amendment had any connection to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that opened the door for states to legalize sports gambling within their borders.

Disney Money

The “yes" campaign has benefited significantly more from corporate money. Disney alone has spent $20 million supporting the initiative, compared with about $7 million total for Adkins’ committee and about $1 million for another opposition group, Vote NO on 3.

The efforts of Disney and its allies seem to be creating an advantage. In a Florida Chamber of Commerce poll conducted Sept. 19-24, 54 percent of respondents planned to vote “yes," 28 percent planned to vote “no," and 18 percent were undecided, with a 4.4 percentage point margin of error. The Florida Chamber supports the measure.

The vote is far from a foregone conclusion, though, because the measure itself needs 60 percent approval.

If successful, the measure would put up another obstacle for expanding gambling, requiring companies to actively campaign for 60 percent voter approval. That would in effect insulate Disney’s brand of Florida tourism, while the Seminole Tribe would maintain its gambling industry preeminence.

Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner referred all questions to John Sowinski, chairman of the pro-Amendment 3 political committee Voters in Charge. Sowinski, in turn, cited the controversial argument that voter control over gambling expansion was already guaranteed in the Florida Constitution, and that Amendment 3 only sought to add clarity on the matter.

“Amendment 3 returns that decision to Florida voters and enables them to have the final say on this issue," Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said. “We oppose the expansion of casino gambling in Florida because it risks our state’s reputation as a family-friendly destination.”

Coveted Market

Gambling companies have long coveted access to the Florida market due to its inherent size, its built-in appeal as a tourist destination and its large pool of retirees with time on their hands. In 1986, the Florida lottery was approved. Starting in the 1990s, parimutuel businesses -- dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons -- were allowed to have poker, and in the 2000s they got slot machines in some areas of Florida.

“We call it gambling creep, where the line constantly gets moved," said Sowinski, of Voters in Charge, the committee that accepted the money from Disney and the Seminoles. “Florida is deeply invested in a family-friendly tourism brand."

At the Magic City Casino in Miami earlier this week, retirees buzzed in and out. Magic City is able to offer its poker and slot machines under special rules for parimutuels. Specifically, it hosts games of jai alai, a ball sport uniquely popular in the Spanish-speaking world. Magic City’s owners have supported the "no" campaign through the Vote No on 3 committee.

Among the morning gamblers, several professed support for casinos and interest in the amendment, but many didn’t understand how to express that view at the ballot box. They assumed a “yes" vote meant they supported gambling. Luis Jacas, a 66-year-old funeral home worker, was one of them, asking for clarity on the matter before expressing an opinion. He ultimately said he would vote “no" if that meant bringing more gaming to his state.

“My opinion is it’s like a liquor store," he said. “If you want to buy liquor, you can go buy it. But you don’t have to. If you don’t like it, don’t go."

A movement has been afoot for years to bring other types of gaming to Florida. Several counties have already voted in referendums to legalize slot machines. But those votes alone didn’t change state law, and lawmakers have yet to follow through with enabling legislation. At the same time, another initiative on the Florida ballot this year would phase out greyhound racing.