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North Florida counties approve slots but court battle awaits

Voters in the rural counties of Gadsden and Washington became the first in the state to agree to install slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward on Tuesday, approving referendums allowing their local horse and dog tracks to offer the Las Vegas-style games.

Gadsden County voters approved slots 63 to 47 percent, while Washington County voters had a 57-43 percent split with some precincts still reportiong. 

But despite their victories, the slot machine battle is likely to be headed for court. The state agency that regulates pari-mutuel gambling has said it will not sanction the games, citing a non-binding opinion from the attorney general who has ruled that the state has no authority to authorize slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Meanwhile, as state regulators balk, legislators have quietly stepped in with an Election Day deadline of their own.

Two Senate bills would make slot machines legal in the two rural counties and one bill, proposed by Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, would open the door for at least three other counties – Palm Beach, Brevard and Lee – to hold future referendums to bring the so-called Class III slot machines to town.

Under an amendment added to Sachs’ bill last week, any county commission that decided by Tuesday to call a voter referendum on slot machines could be grandfathered into the bill. Palm Beach officials had called for the referendum in December. Brevard made a similar decision on Jan. 24. And, after a last-minute addition to the Lee County Commission agenda Tuesday, the commission voted 3-2 to hold a referendum there too.

“It seems to dupe public notice and it troubles me greatly,’’ said Lee County Commissioner Brian Bigelow, according to a transcript of Tuesday’s commission meeting. “I'm not supporting this. The process is too hasty on too big an issue.’’

Sachs said that each of the counties had been considering conducting a referendum, patterned after the ones offered by Gadsden and Washington counties, and it didn’t seem fair to exclude them if the bill becomes law.

“We tried to make it so that everybody has the same advantage,’’ Sachs said Tuesday. For two years, she has carried the greyhound bill on behalf of Palm Beach County Kennel Club, whose top priority has been to shift from live dog racing to slot machines and last week agreed to expand it to more clearly open the door for slot machines.

“We are trying to get rid of, or at least mitigate, a very inhuman form of gaming,’’ she said. “Disney upgrades its rides every year. The same thing should be allowed with gaming.”

The Gadsden and Washington county referendums were based on a legal interpretation of a 2009 law that opened the door for Hialeah Racetrack to operate slots after Miami-Dade voters authorized them for three other parimutuels in the county. An appeals court said that the law allowed counties that obtained voter approval to allow for slot machines at existing pari-mutuels but that ruling is being challenged before the Florida Supreme Court by Hialeah’s competing casinos Miami- Dade.

Sachs’ bill allows the dog tracks and jai alai frontons not included in the first wave to get slot machines if they get the legislature to approve a local bill to authorize a referendum and if voters approve.

Sachs’ bill also prohibits any of the tracks from opening slot machines until 2015, when the state’s agreement to give the Seminole Tribe exclusive operation of black jack and other table games expires. Until then, the state is expected to receive $233 million a year in revenue from the tribe’s casinos.

For the past six months, pari-mutuels have slowly and steadily been exploiting loopholes in the state’s gambling laws to find a way to install lucrative slot machines at their economically-suppressed racetracks. State regulators last summer awarded a quarter horse racing permit to Gretna Racing LLC in Gadsden, a company whose primary financing comes from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama. Since it opened in December, the Gretna company has had raised $30,000 in from its barrel races and $178,000 from its cardrooms.  

The Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and the American Quarter Horse Racing Association are suing the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation alleging the state did not have the authority to issue the pari-mutuel permit for the Gretna track because barrel racing is not a legally-sanctioned betting sport.

Meanwhile, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee last month added a provision to Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff's proposal to allow for three resort casinos in Florida that would allow the Gretna Barrel Racing track to get slot machines, if voters approve, but halts the proliferation of slot machines elsewhere.

“These are all just reacting to what has been occurring in Florida for some time,’’ Bogdanoff said. “There is a changing attitude about gaming in this state and everybody wants to take advantage of it by expanding revenues and expanding jobs.”

She said that the goal of her bill is to end the loophole-driven proliferation of gambling and instead take a strategic approach by putting a halt to new gambling permits and shifting to resort-style casinos.

“If we do nothing, I predict that in five years we will lead the nation in predatory and regional gambling,’’ she said.

Sachs’ bill has not been heard in the House and is not scheduled for another vote in the Senate. The House version of Bogdanoff’s resort casino bill, by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is scheduled for its first hearing on Friday.