Gadsden decision prompts more slots referenda

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Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida reports that a controversial decision this month by Gadsden County allowing voters to decide whether to have slot machines at the new Gretna horse race track has prompted several copycat efforts in other counties, despite questions over the legality of slots.

Washington County, just north of Panama City, decided Monday to let voters choose in January whether to allow slots at the Ebro Greyhound Race Track. In Lee County, the owner of a Bonita Springs race track is pressing county commissioners to consider a similar referendum. In Hamilton County the owners of a race track there are asking the state for a license to operate barrel racing, which can open the door for a slots referendum later.

The sudden departure from allowing slot machines solely in two South Florida counties to letting any county in Florida have slots stems from a 2009 law passed by the Legislature that was aimed at allowing slots at the Hialeah Park race track.

In 2004, Florida voters decided that slots would be allowed only in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The law was narrowly written so that only existing pari-mutuels could offer slots if voters approved through a referendum.

The change by the Legislature in 2009 was designed to allow just Hialeah Park race track, which wasn’t open at the time of the referendum, to offer slots. But several competing pari-mutuel facilities sued over that law.

A subsequent appeals court decision said the Legislature had the legal authority to expand slots. The decision led the Gretna race track to interpret the law to mean that any pari-mutuel in Florida could apply for a slot machine license so long as it passed a countywide referendum and held a certain number of live races.

Barry Richard, an attorney for the Seminole tribe, said the new potential county players are interpreting the law incorrectly and the rush to put slots on the ballots is a result of a “misunderstanding” of the law that started with the Gretna race track.

“(They) got everybody excited,” Richard said. “I don’t know whether they don’t understand what they are reading and don’t think anybody will notice

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.