The Florida Supreme Court slammed the door Thursday on any county that wants to hold a referendum to let voters decide whether to permit slot machines at local parimutuel race tracks or jai-alai frontons. It’s a case that critics say could have resulted in a massive expansion of slots in Florida had the ruling gone the other way.
In its ruling the court said state law does not give authority to counties to hold referenda on whether to allow slots. The court said such authority can only be given by the state Legislature or a constitutional amendment.
At issue was whether a racing facility in rural Gretna, just west of Tallahassee, could install slot machines after voters gave approval to the idea.
The Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering denied the facility a license saying state law did not give Gadsden County the right to hold a referendum on allowing slots at the parimutuel facility.
The state’s high court agreed.
“We are disappointed the Florida Supreme Court did not agree with our interpretation of the law and because of this ruling, we are now unable to create new jobs,” said Sarah Bascom on behalf of Creek Entertainment. “We are considering our options on how to proceed.”
Legislative leaders praised the court’s ruling. Senate President Joe Negron says the decision reasserts the Legislature’s control over the regulation of gaming in Florida.
“Today the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed that the responsibility to determine the future of gaming in Florida lies with the elected members of the Legislature,” said Negron. “With current law upheld, the Legislature now has every opportunity to shape gaming policy for our state in a manner that respects both the authority of local referendums and the ongoing relationship with the Seminole Tribe, without the underlying concern that a court ruling could suddenly upend productive negotiations.”
Lawyers for the Gretna racing facility argued the Legislature revised statutes pertaining to slots when it granted authority to Hialeah Park to operate slots.
But, in writing the court’s opinion, Justice Charles Canady says that nothing in statute “grants any authority to regulate slot machine gaming to any county. The only role that counties play regarding slot machine gaming is conducting referenda when authorized by law.”
State Sen. Bill Galvano, who has been one of the Legislature’s point persons on gaming, says it empowers the state in its ongoing talks over gaming with the Seminole Tribe. Had the ruling gone the other way, it could have invalidated the state’s agreement with the Seminoles that gives them exclusive operation of slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The state receives $120 million a year from that agreement.
“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,” said Sen. Galvano. “We look forward to continuing this important discussion with Governor Scott, our colleagues in the Florida House, the Seminole Tribe, industry stakeholders and constituents across the state as we head towards the 2018 Regular Session.”
Today’s decision affects eight counties that had voted to allow casino gaming at their local parimutuel facilities that have seen business tail off over the years.
Those counties were: Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington.