TALLAHASSEE — Voters in the rural North Florida counties of Gadsden and Washington on Tuesday became the first in the state outside of Miami-Dade and Broward to agree to install slot machines, as voters approved referendums to bring Las Vegas-style slots to their local horse and dog tracks.
Despite the victories, the slot machine battle is likely headed for court. The state agency that regulates parimutuel gambling has said it will not approve the games in the two counties, citing a nonbinding opinion from the attorney general, who has ruled that the state has no authority to authorize slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward.
Meanwhile, as state regulators balk, legislators have quietly stepped in.
Two Senate bills would make slot machines legal in the two rural counties, and one bill, proposed by Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, would open the door for at least three other counties — Palm Beach, Brevard and Lee — to hold referendums to bring the so-called Class III slot machines to town.
Under an amendment to Sachs' bill last week, any county commission that decided by Tuesday to call a voter referendum on slot machines could be grandfathered into the bill. Palm Beach officials had called for the referendum in December. Brevard made a similar decision on Jan. 24. And, after a last-minute addition to the Lee County Commission agenda Tuesday, the commission voted 3-2 to hold a referendum there, too.
"It seems to dupe public notice and it troubles me greatly,'' said Lee County Commissioner Brian Bigelow, according to a transcript of Tuesday's commission meeting. "I'm not supporting this. The process is too hasty on too big an issue.''
Sachs said each of the counties had been considering conducting a referendum, and it didn't seem fair to exclude them if the bill becomes law.
"We tried to make it so that everybody has the same advantage," Sachs said Tuesday. Her bill would allow greyhound tracks to no longer be required to race dogs, a top priority of the Palm Beach County Kennel Club, Flagler Dog Track in Miami and Mardi Gras casino in Hallandale Beach.
"We are trying to get rid of, or at least mitigate, a very inhumane form of gaming," Sachs said. "Disney upgrades its rides every year. The same thing should be allowed with gaming."
Sachs' bill allows dog tracks and jai alai frontons not included in the first wave to get slot machines if they get the Legislature to approve a local bill to authorize a referendum and if voters approve.
Sachs' bill also prohibits the tracks from opening slot machines until 2015, when the state's agreement to give the Seminole Tribe exclusive operation of blackjack and other table games expires. Until then, the state is expected to receive $233 million a year in revenue from the tribe's casinos.
Meanwhile, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee last month added a provision to Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff's proposal to allow for three resort casinos in Florida that would allow the Gretna Barrel Racing track in Gadsden County to get slot machines, if voters approve, but halts the proliferation of slot machines elsewhere.
"These are all just reacting to what has been occurring in Florida for some time," Bogdanoff said. "There is a changing attitude about gaming in this state and everybody wants to take advantage of it by expanding revenues and expanding jobs."
She said the goal of her bill is to end the loophole-driven proliferation of gambling and instead take a strategic approach by putting a halt to new gambling permits and shifting to resort-style gambling.
"If we do nothing, I predict that in five years we will lead the nation in predatory and regional gambling," she said.
Sachs' bill has not been heard in the House and is not scheduled for another vote in the Senate. The House version of Bogdanoff's resort casino bill, by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is scheduled for its first hearing on Friday.