The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday left open the possibility of reviewing two proposals that would expand gambling in the state, while rejecting a review of a stalled ballot initiative on broadening Medicaid eligibility.
The court’s actions could make it easier to get on the 2024 ballot for backers of an initiative that would allow sports betting in the state and another proposal that would authorize Las Vegas-style gambling in North Florida.
The gambling-related measures failed to capture enough petition signatures to go before voters this year. Backers of each proposal needed to submit nearly 900,000 signatures to elections officials before a Feb. 1 deadline.
Under Florida law, signatures obtained for placement on the 2022 ballot are valid only for one election cycle, meaning that sponsors of the initiatives will have to start from scratch on petition gathering if they want voters to weigh in on the measures in 2024.
In addition to supporters needing to submit enough petition signatures, Supreme Court reviews of the wording of proposed initiatives are an integral part of making it onto the ballot.
Justices review initiatives to decide whether they meet such constitutional requirements as having a single subject and not being confusing to voters. For ballot proposals in 2022 and 2024, the court’s scrutiny is triggered when initiative sponsors submit about 223,000 petition signatures to elections officials.
After ballot initiatives reach the initial signature threshold, the attorney general’s office asks the court for advisory opinions on the constitutionality of the proposals.
Both gambling-related measures obtained the number of signatures required to trigger Supreme Court review but then failed to garner enough petitions to be placed on the November ballot.
The court began the review process in January, but on Feb. 8 — after the measures fell short of the requisite number of signatures for ballot placement — 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. The Florida Senate argued in a brief that the court lacked the authority to proceed because the measures did not have enough signatures to make it onto the ballot.
“If an initiative no longer meets these standards with its review, then the court no longer has jurisdiction to proceed with its review,” Senate General Counsel Jeremiah Hawkes wrote in the brief.
The sponsors of the gambling initiatives, political committees known as Florida Education Champions and Florida Voters in Charge, argued that the court should weigh in on the measures.
“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,” wrote Jesse Panuccio, an attorney for Florida Voters in Charge, which has been behind the North Florida casino proposal.
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 sponsors to advisory opinions, Panuccio, who served as general counsel for former Gov. Rick Scott, 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.
Thursday’s rulings on the casino proposal and the sports-betting measure said the court “retains jurisdiction” of the attorney general’s request for advisory opinions.
The court will “render its written opinion no later than April 1 of the year in which the initiative is to be submitted to voters,” the ruling said.
The court’s rulings mean that backers of the gambling proposals don’t have to start from the ground up on getting approval of the initiative wording if they want to revive the measures for the 2024 ballot. But the rulings also don’t give the sponsors any indication of how the court might rule on whether the measures meet constitutional muster. The rulings also didn’t set schedules for arguments or briefs.
The court on Thursday also effectively shot down a proposed constitutional amendment that sought to expand Medicaid eligibility in the state.
The move effectively means that backers of the initiative would have to start over if they hope to put it on a future ballot.
The political committee Florida Decides Healthcare initially proposed putting the Medicaid expansion issue on the 2020 ballot but did not collect enough petition signatures to qualify.
The proposal met the threshold to trigger Supreme Court review of the ballot wording, leading Moody’s office to file a petition with the court for an opinion on the ballot wording.
But opponents, including the Florida House and Senate, argued that the court should dismiss the petition as the Medicaid proposal had stalled.
The Supreme Court on Feb. 8 asked for briefs about whether the case should be dismissed as moot.
Moody’s office, the House, the Senate and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity filed briefs — but the Florida Decides Healthcare committee did not.
As a result, the Supreme Court said Thursday it was dismissing the petition for an opinion “based on the sponsor of the initiative failing to timely file a response in accordance” with the Feb. 8 order. The move was backed by Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson, Carlos Muniz, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans. Justice Jorge Labarga dissented.
— News Service Executive Editor Jim Saunders contributed to this report.