Florida Supreme Court Rejects More Racetrack Slots

In a unanimous decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Florida counties do not have legal authority to ask voters to approve slot machines at existing parimutuel racetracks or jai-alai frontons without constitutional or legislative approval. As a result, although voters in Gadsden County approved slots in a referendum, Gretna Racing, which also operates a poker room (l.), cannot install them. The ruling affects seven other counties where voters have also approved slots.

In a closely watched legal battle, the Florida Supreme Court last week unanimously ruled that that Florida counties have no legal authority to ask voters to approve slot machines at existing parimutuel race tracks or jai-alai frontons without constitutional or legislative approval. That means owners of Gretna Racing in Gadsden County may not install slot machines—even though county voters approved them in a referendum.

In a case brought by the owners of Gretna Racing in rural 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.

The ruling is a major setback for horse and dog racetracks in seven other counties where voters had approved slots in referendums–Brevard, Duval, Lee, Hamilton, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington. Financially struggling horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons were hoping for a favorable court ruling.

John Sowinski, president of the anti-gambling group No Casinos, said, “The good news is there will not be thousands of slot machines coming to Florida without further action by the legislature.”

Lawyers for Gretna racetrack owners contended the referendum allowed slots based on a 2009 change in a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, permitting local control over slot machines. But Attorney General Pam Bondi and state regulators disagreed with that interpretation and banned the track from installing slots.

Siding with Bondi, the court said the racetrack owners had misread the 2009 legislation, noting the concept that counties could allow slot machines “was nowhere to be found” in existing law. Justice Charles Canady wrote for the court, “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.”

Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for Creek Entertainment Gretna, owners of the racetrack, said the owners were “disappointed” with the ruling. She said the track would be “unable to create new jobs” as a result. The facility opened in December 2011 and offers flat track horse racing, poker rooms and off-site betting.

Slots are permitted under state law at casinos operated by the Seminole Tribe. Dog and horse racetracks in south Florida are allowed to have slots under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2004.

Florida lawmakers considered a major gambling bill during its recently concluded session. The bill would have allowed tracks outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties to add slot machines. Senate Republicans backed the change, but House Republicans opposed it and as a result the bill failed.

State Senator Bill Galvano, sponsor of the gambling bill, said the high court ruling may prove to be beneficial in 2018. “This confirmation of legislative authority removes a significant obstacle in our negotiations with the Seminole Tribe, providing clarity that as we move forward the legislature, rather than the courts, will determine what expansion looks like and where it takes place,” Galvano said.

He noted the high court’s decision does not guarantee the eight referendum counties won’t get approval for slots from the legislature at a later date. “It doesn’t mean this issue is gone,” Galvano said. The legislature could still opt to allow those counties to have slot machines, but under the legislature’s terms in consultation with the Seminole Tribe. “If we still want to see an expansion of slots, it puts us in the driver’s seat,” Galvano said.

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