AG Bondi says ‘No’ to slots outside of South Florida

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Attorney General Pam Bondi issued an opinion Thursday that will lead to the state rejecting proposals for slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The opinion came less than three weeks before Gadsden and Washington counties are scheduled to hold referenda about whether to allow slot machines. At least two other counties, Hamilton and Palm Beach, have scheduled similar referendums later in the year.

But Bondi said in the opinion that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation should not approve slot-machine licenses based on the upcoming votes. The opinion said that such referenda would only be valid if they are authorized by the Legislature or in the state Constitution.

DBPR Secretary Ken Lawson, who requested an opinion from Bondi, quickly issued a statement Thursday saying the agency would follow her advice.

“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,” Lawson said. “We intend to follow the guidance outlined in the opinion.”

But Marc Dunbar, an attorney for a new Gadsden County pari-mutuel facility that is seeking slot machines, issued a statement disputing Bondi’s conclusion and indicating the issue will wind up in court.

“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,” Dunbar said. “Fortunately, the Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions that these advisory opinions have no binding effect 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.”

The opinion is the latest twist in a wide-ranging debate about the future of gambling in Florida. The highest-profile part of that debate centers on whether to allow resort casinos in the state, but it also includes questions about allowing slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities and whether to regulate or ban storefront Internet cafes that critics contend offer a form of gambling.

Slot machines were barred in Florida for decades, but a 2004 constitutional amendment allowed the games at pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The dispute about other counties holding slots referenda stems, at least in part, from a 2010 change in state law that was related to a gambling agreement between Florida and the Seminole Indian tribe.

Gadsden and Washington counties decided late last year to take the issue to voters on Jan. 31. The pari-mutuel facility in the Gadsden County community of Gretna offers barrel racing, while the Ebro facility in Washington County is a longstanding greyhound track.

Bondi, who has been outspoken in her opposition to allowing expanded gambling at resort casinos, disagreed in the opinion with the Gadsden and Washington interpretations of the law.

The disputed part of the law says that slot machines are authorized at pari-mutuel facilities in counties “in which a majority of voters have approved slot machines at such facilities in a countywide referendum held pursuant to a statutory or constitutional authorization after the effective date” of the law.

Bondi’s opinion examined the structure of the sentence and also included quotes from a Senate floor debate when the law was revised in 2010. Her conclusion is that the law requires legislative or constitutional authorization before a valid referendum can be held.

“(The) Legislature’s chosen language requires the adoption of a statute or constitutional amendment specifically authorizing a referendum to approve slot machines,” the opinion said.

But former Democratic Sen. Al Lawson, who is chairman of a group called Jobs for Gadsden that is promoting the county’s referendum, said lawmakers intended for local voters to be able to decide whether to allow slots.

“This is not a surprise that a Republican attorney general is trying to prevent Gadsden County votes from being counted in an election,” said Lawson, who joined Dunbar in issuing the statement. “When they can’t win at the ballot box, they break out the same old playbook and try to get their way by limiting voters’ access to the polls.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.