Opponents eye 2018 to head off legislative moves legalizing slots

By John Breslin | May 28, 2017

Opponents of the spread of slot machines in Florida are eyeing November 2018 as the point when they claim "total victory" and their permanent bar in most parts of the state.

Opponents of the spread of slot machines in Florida are eyeing November 2018 as the point when they claim "total victory" and their permanent bar in most parts of the state.

Following a May 18 Florida Supreme Court ruling that stopped one county from allowing slots at a particular racetrack, those advocating against their spread said they are already working on the 2018 ballot initiative.

"We are happy (with the ruling), but what happened was a partial victory," Paul Seago, executive director of No Casinos, an advocacy organization, told the Florida Record. "Hopefully we shoot now for total victory."

His group is working on a Voters in Charge initiative that will stop legislators moving to expand slots and other forms of gambling.

The Supreme Court ruling centered on tiny Gadsden County on the Georgia border, and a racetrack in the town of Gretna, Gretna Racing, that wanted to install slot machines.

Gadsden and six other counties voted to allow slot machines, but the judges, in a dense ruling that mirrors some of the confusion around the issue, ruled against the expansion. The six counties are Brevard, Duval, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington.

Essentially, the constitution, provisions of which were most recently upheld in a 2004 statewide referendum, trumps any move at county level, though the lead opinion suggested that state legislators could authorize an expansion.

"There must be ‘statutory or constitutional authorization’ for any countywide referendum approving slot machines at qualifying pari-mutuel facilities,” wrote Justice Charles Canady. “The authorization must be found elsewhere in the law. And it is nowhere to be found.”

Gambling, defined as any game of chance, is largely banned in Florida, with exceptions made for some casinos on Indian land. Slot machines are banned everywhere, bar two counties.

Two anomalies are Broward and Miami-Dade counties, both of which in a statewide 2004 referendum were essentially allowed to vote separately from the rest of Florida, according to Seago.

And even then, Seago told the Florida Record, the vote was extremely close.

Legislators have introduced bills from about 2011—two this past session, including one in the Senate allowing slot machines in the eight counties that have voted for them. The House balked at the provisions relating to the expansion of slot machines.  

Sen. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton), who sponsored the gambling bill that was aimed at legislating around a 2010 agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, told the Sun Sentinel newspaper that the court ruling could help legislators reach an agreement in 2018. Galvano said the ruling confirmed legislative authority.

"The court has confirmed the authority in the Legislature and has not wrested it away from us to decide how and to what extent we want the expansion with slots, without having this major impact on the existing compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” Galvano further told The News Service of Florida.

The 2010 compact with the Seminole gives the tribe exclusive rights to operate slot machines outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties, in return for $120 million a year. 

Lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents pari-mutuels in Brevard and Duval counties on the slots issue, said the uncertainty of the court decision "provides some level of impetus for the Legislature to act."

"So, of course, we would have preferred the court to rule in our favor," Iarossi told The News Service of Florida. "But nothing has changed. We will still be lobbying for the same slots authorization language we have pushed for the last couple of years.” 

Iarossi did not respond to requests for comment from the Florida Record.

Seago said his group and others have so far helped hold back legislation being passed. And the Voters in Charge ballot initiative will finally end those legislative moves, Seago said, adding that overall, No Casinos' position is that the Florida constitution expressly bans lotteries except with limited exceptions. 

"(The initiative) will put voters back in charge," Seago said. "And they will absolutely vote in favor—surveys show 70 percent support."

The Supreme Court ruling followed some confusion among the lower courts on the issue. The First District Court of Appeal first ruled for Gretna Racing but then reversed the decision, which led to the higher court stepping in.

Both Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi are opposed to the expansion of slot machines.

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Florida First District Court of Appeal Florida Supreme Court No Casinos

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