Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who has been at the core of the Legislature's gambling negotiations for the past seven years, said Tuesday that when lawmakers adopted the change to the state gaming law in 2010, they did not intend to open the door to the expansion of slot machines as Gretna Racing and five other pari-mutuels around the state are claiming.
"It was not the intent of the Legislature to open the door for counties to hold their own referendums to allow the expansion of slots,'' he said in an interview with the Herald/Times.
"In fact, the language as written -- and as explained at the time -- was that it needed to be a legislatively-approved referendum, or one that was brought forward by voters at a constitutional level. It was never what Gretna is attempting -- which flies in the face of the bill they claim is giving them the authority."
Galvano's remarks came on the day the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments over what could be a pivotal case as it relates to the future of gambling in Florida.
Gretna Racing, a Gadsden County racetrack and card room, argued before the court on Tuesday that it is entitled to operate slots at its facility because county voters gave them approval to operate the machines in 2012 and they meet the criteria because they have operated "flag drop" races for two years. If it succeeds, at least five other counties — Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington — which have already voted to bring casinos to their stressed horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons would install them as well.
Lawyers for Attorney General Pam Bondi responded, arguing that the 2010 law allows counties to authorize slot machines only if the Legislature authorized the referendum and agreed to expand gambling. Galvano and former state Sen. Dan Gelber, who attended the oral arguments Tuesday hearing on behalf of former Gov. Bob Graham, agreed.
Galvano, a lawyer, was point man for the House of Representatives in 2009 and 2010 during negotiations with the Seminole Tribe over the state's gaming compact. In 2009, the legislature modified the implementing law relating to slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward by allowing Hialeah Race Course to be eligible for a slots license.
The race track was not an operating pari-mutuel when voters approved the statewide constitutional amendment allowing slot machines in Miami Dade and Broward in 2003 but, because Hialeah was located in Miami-Dade, legislators agreed to revise the law to include it among the casinos that could operate Class III slots.
By 2010, the Legislature wanted to clarify the terms of the referendum language referred to in the 2009 law, Galvano said.
"We didn't want the Hialeah expansion to muddy the waters,'' he said. "Instead, we reiterated that if we approved legislatively-expanded slots -- or a legislatively constitutional amendment...we didn't relinquish authority."
But instead of clarifying, the law has become another vehicle for gaming owners across the state to use as a method to get access to lucrative slots license -- which now are allowed only in Miami-Dade and Broward and at the seven casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
If the court sides with Gretna, it could usher in the explosive growth of gambling across the state and invalidate the $250 million-a-year gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida
Galvano said the 2010 language was drafted by legislative staff and, in the process, "I did receive input from the entire pari-mutuel community and their representatives,'' he said.
"The actual drafting came down to the legislature and the bill drafting staff and counsel. I can tell you there was no one in the process at the time that was advocating for the independent ability of counties to expand based on referendum without legislative approval. That was not even part of the discussion."
Absent a public debate, there was pressure from the pari-mutuel industry who wanted the opportunity to bring slot machines to their ailing horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons, Galvano said. "But from the [legislative] members' standpoint, it was understood there would be an opportunity for Hialeah to expand, but that we were not expanding anywhere else."
According to the legislative archives, quoted in the attorney general's brief, Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, asked Galvano during the 2009 debate on the gambling bill whether it "would allow for the slot machines at the pari-mutuel facilities” outside Miami-Dade and Broward and whether “a local area would need to have a referendum, and in order to do that, they would have to come back to the House or to the Legislature to get approval for the referendum?”
Galvano is recorded as having replied: “Yes, if you are talking about Class III games [which includes slot machines], you are correct. A county could come back to the Legislature, which could authorize that type of referendum. It could also be through constitutional amendment, [whether] through a joint resolution or a citizen petition.”
Gelber, a Miami Democrat and gambling opponent, agrees that is how he perceived the debate when he served in the Legislature in 2009 and 2010.
"In that decade, the Legislature never, if at all, would expand gambling -- unless it was forced upon them by a constitutional amendment,'' he said after the court hearing Tuesday. "The notion that that somehow authorized 65 other counties to start doing what the legislature refused to do every time it was brought before them is pretty absurd...
"Nobody was standing up and saying we're having a debate about 65 other counties,'' Gelber said. "The idea that in implementing that constitutional amendment, they would sort of under-the-the table give 65 other counties that same right is sort of absurd... If that had happened, I know a few of my colleagues whose heads would have exploded."