Tampa, Fla. — The drive to put legalization of casino gambling on this year's ballot in Florida has been canceled. But proponents say they will be back in 1984.
John F. Brown, state campaign coordinator for the main pro-casino group, known as Citizens for Less Taxes, says he started the petition drive too late to gather enough valid signatures to put the question on the ballot.
While the group nearly had compiled the required 298,000 signatures, he says, it did not have the 100,000 surplus names it felt it would need to make up for signatures that probably would be ruled invalid during certification.
Also, he says, with 2,000 people running for office this year in a newly reapportioned Florida, ''we would become a political football and not get our message across.''
Anti-casino groups, which in the past have been led by former Gov. Reubin Askew and Gov. Bob Graham, were gearing up for a fight this year, and appeared relieved when the pro-gambling forces folded their tents.
Opponents of casino gambling, which included the editorial page editors of most of the state's major newspapers, had bristled at the very name of Mr. Brown's organization, saying it was trying to foist gambling on the state through a smoke screen of such a popular issue as lower taxes.
Opponents of casinos claimed gambling would attract organized crime, would ruin the family-vacation atmosphere of Florida, and would bring in more street crime. Florida is doing quite well without casinos, they say, and anyone who wants to gamble can go to the dog tracks, horse races, and jai alai frontons that are already legal.
They cite a poll done by MGT of America Inc. that said 58 percent of Floridians polled opposed legalized gambling, and only 37 percent approved of it.
A 1978 referendum that asked voters statewide if casino gambling should be allowed only on Miami Beach was defeated when 71 percent of the voters said no. The proposal was defeated in every county, including Miami Beach's own Dade County.
But pro-casino forces bounced back this year, not only pushing to get the question on the ballot, but this time calling for legalized gambling in the entire state.
Under the new proposal, gambling would be allowed in any Florida county where the local voters also approved it. The group also proposed establishing a Florida state lottery to raise money to help run the government.
Citizens for Less Taxes will be using the names on the petitions it circulated this year as the basis for a mailing list, Brown says. During the next two years the group will canvass the state to try to dispel the negative image of legalized gambling.
Brown, a former New Jersey state senator, denies that organized crime is involved in legal gambling and argues that casinos would bring new jobs to Florida and new revenues to the state's coffers.
He says a statewide educational campaign by pro-casino forces would change public opinion by answering attacks made by anti-gambling groups.
''We are candid that casinos bring problems,'' he says, ''but they are problems associated with growth and not with the despair of hard times.''