In a decision that adds fuel to the debate about expanded gambling, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday upheld a lower-court ruling that says lawmakers can allow slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities in various parts of the state, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida
Justices declined to take up a challenge to a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that stems from a plan by Hialeah Park horse track in Miami-Dade County to add potentially lucrative slot machines.
But the lower-court ruling has ramifications outside South Florida, as it would allow lawmakers to authorize slot machines elsewhere.
Voters in Gadsden, Washington and Hamilton counties in recent months have approved referendums to allow slot machines. It remains unclear whether pari-mutuel facilities in those counties will get the machines, because Attorney General Pam Bondi has issued an opinion arguing the referendums are not legitimate.
But Marc Dunbar, an attorney and minority partner in a pari-mutuel facility in the Gadsden County community of Gretna, said the high court decision was critical to the possibility of adding slots in places such as Gadsden, Washington and Hamilton.
“All of us were waiting to see what the (Florida) Supreme Court would do,” Dunbar said.
The court decision comes after a legislative session that included heavy debate about whether to allow resort casinos in Florida. The casino bills died, though supporters have indicated they could try again in the future to gain approval.
John Sowinski, president of the advocacy group No Casinos Inc., said Friday the slots issue is part of a “constant upward spiral” of attempts to expand gambling. He raised the possibility of trying to pass a constitutional amendment to try to help limit gambling.
“Perhaps it is time for a constitutional amendment to ensure that voters will continue to have the final say on whether they want more crime, more addiction and higher social costs for taxpayers,” Sowinski said.
The Hialeah case is rooted in a 2004 constitutional amendment that paved the way for seven pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward to add slot machines. The historic Hialeah track did not meet requirements included in the amendment but later got the Legislature to change state law to allow it to have slots.
Other South Florida pari-mutuel facilities challenged state approval of slots for Hialeah, contending it violated the 2004 constitutional amendment. But the appeals court said the Legislature has the power to authorize slots, not only at Hialeah but at other venues.
The appeals-court opinion, issued in October, said the 2004 amendment “provides no indication that Florida voters intended to forever prohibit the Legislature from exercising its authority to expand slot-machine gaming beyond those facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties meeting the specified criteria. Nor is there any indication that Florida voters intended to grant the seven entities who met the criteria a constitutionally protected monopoly over slot machine gaming in the state.”
The effects of the ruling likely will take time to play out, in part because of Bondi’s advisory opinion that was issued in January.
Bondi did not dispute that the Legislature has the power to authorize slot machines in other parts of the state. But she said referendums in places such as Gadsden and Washington counties would only be valid if they were authorized by the Legislature or in the state constitution.
Pointing to Bondi’s opinion, the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation said it would not grant slot machine licenses based on those county referendums. Department spokeswoman Sandi Poreda said in an e-mail Friday that the department’s position has not changed.
But Dunbar, who teaches gaming law at Florida State University, has disputed Bondi’s opinion. He said the issue could be resolved in a lawsuit stemming from a planned November referendum on slot machines in Palm Beach County.
“At the end of the day, that (attorney general’s) opinion has to be dealt with in some form or fashion,” Dunbar said.