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Attorney general opinion puts reins on slots at Gretna barrel racing track

Attorney General Pam Bondi on Thursday told the Department of Business and Professional Regulation that it has no right to issue slot machine permits outside of Miami Dade and Broward Counties -- including at the controversial barrel racing track in the tiny North Florida town of Gretna.

The opinion was sought by the department months after it allowed Gretna to operate barrel racing as a legitimate pari-mutuel sport. Once the track opened in December, the Gadsden County Commission used the permit to schedule a local referendum on the Jan. 31 Republican Primary asking voters to authorize slot machines at the newly opened race track.

“We are still in the process of reviewing the opinion received today from the Attorney General, but it appears that a county referendum to authorize slot machines that is held without specific legislative or constitutional authority will not serve as qualification for a facility to become eligible to apply for a slot machine license,'' said DBPR Secretary Ken Lawson in a statement Thursday. "We intend to follow the guidance outlined in the opinion.”

In addition to Gadsden County, Washington County has scheduled a referendum for Jan. 31 to bring slot machines to its dog track and Palm Beach County has set a local referendum for the November presidential ballot, to authorize slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

In the seven-page opinion issued Thursday, Bondi concludes that when legislators expanded slot machines to Hialeah in 2009 it did not imply that any other county that wants slot machines simply has to have an operating pari-mutuel and a local referendum. Instead, she said, the county must first get legislative or constitutional approval. Download Bondi opinion

Bondi has been an outspoken critic of the destination resort casino proposal moving through the Legislature but until now has been silent about the proliferation of counties seeking to expand slot machines through local referenda. In the meantime, legislators have filed bills to clarify what they considered the murky intent of their 2009 law.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, has filed a bill seeking to clarify the legislative intent relating to the expansion of slot machines. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, rewrote her destination resort casino bill to grandfather in the existing pari-mutuels who have a referendum scheduled but impose a ban on any others getting slots in the future.

Although the referendums were scheduled weeks ago, Lawson of DBPR sought Bondi's opinion on the issue on Monday, when the legislative debate was heating up.  Download DBPR Request1201

Marc Dunbar, an attorney and part-owner of the Gretna track, strongly disputed Bondi's legal conclusion.

“This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that an attorney general has opined, for political issues, on a gambling issue outside of their authority,'' he said in a statement. "Fortunately the Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions that these advisory opinions have no binding affect and more times than not are eventually rejected by Florida courts.  I look forward to meeting her in court where law, not politics, will ultimately decide the issue.”

John Lockwood, attorney for Palm Beach Kennel Club, also disagreed with Bondi's position. "If there’s a successful referendum in Palm Beach County, we are entitled to the issurance of a slot machine license,'' he said.

But Wilbur Brewton, lawyer for Calder Race Track, which is challengning the First District Court of Appeal Ruling that started the debate (when it said that Hialeah Race Track was entitled to install slot machines without a local referendum,) said he agreed with Bondi. "I believe that the AG opinion sets out a clear and correct interpretation of the statute,'' he said.