State Supreme Court rejects massive expansion of slot machines

By Mary Ellen Klas &Jeremy Wallace

 

The Miami Herald

In an major defeat for counties that wanted to authorize slot machines by referendum, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously ruled that Florida counties have no legal authority to ask voters to approve slot machines at existing pari-mutuel race tracks or jai-alai frontons without constitutional or legislative approval.

In a case brought by the owners of Gretna Racing in Gadsden County, the court upheld the decision by the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering to deny a slots license, arguing that state law does not authorize counties to conduct referendums to enable slot machines gaming.

“In the absence of such a specific authorization, a county cannot initiate a referendum that will authorize the Division to issue a license any more than the county could itself issue a slot machine gaming license,” wrote Justice Charles Canady who authored the ruling.

The decision was signed by five other justices, including the court’s newest justice, Alan C. Lawson, who did not participate in the oral arguments last June. Justice Peggy Quince recused herself because her daughter works for the gaming division of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

In the absence of such a specific authorization, a county cannot initiate a referendum that will authorize the Division to issue a license any more than the county could itself issue a slot machine gaming license.

Gretna’s lawyers had argued that when the Florida Legislature modified the slots statute to allow Hialeah Park to operate slot machines it opened the door for other counties to seek voter approval to bring the games to their pari-mutuel facilities.

But Justice Charles Canady, who authored the ruling, argued that while “slot machine gaming is permitted under tight restrictions as laid out by the Legislature in chapter 551,” nothing in the statute “grants any authority to regulate slot machine gaming to any county. The only role that counties play regarding slot machine gaming is conducting referenda when authorized by law.”

The court’s ruling halts the prospect that the state could see the explosive growth of slot machines anytime soon. Eight counties — Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Lee, Hamilton, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington — had voted to bring casinos to their stressed horse and dog tracks or jai-alai frontons and were hoping on a favorable ruling from the court to allow them to start installing the machines this year.

“The good news is there will not be thousands of slot machines coming to Florida without further action by the legislature,” said John Sowinski, President of No Casinos, a non-profit group that opposes expanded gambling in Florida.

The decision also has the potential to revive talks between the governor and Legislature with the Seminole Tribe of Florida over allowing them to operate casino games exclusively in Florida in exchange for annual revenues of as much as $300 million.

“It looks like it is very good for the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe,” said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Tribe.

If the court had allowed counties to expand slot machines across the state, it could have invalidated the gaming compact that gives the tribe exclusive operation of slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties in exchange for $120 million a year in revenues to the state.

“That could have had far reaching negative impacts to the state,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has been at the core of the Legislature’s gambling negotiations for the past seven years.

While the decision stops Gadsden and other counties from moving forward with slot machines, it doesn’t mean those counties won’t get such an approval from the Legislature later, he said. “It doesn’t mean this issue is gone,” Galvano said.

He said the Legislature could still opt to allow those counties to have slot machines, but under terms spelled out by the Legislature after consultation with the Seminole Tribe.

 

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