Advertisement
  1. Florida Politics

Justices hear arguments over murky meaning of Florida law on slot machines

In what could be a far-reaching case, the Florida Supreme Court hears arguments today about whether Florida can expand gambling without a constitutional change and, if so, does it take Legislative approval. 
[Photo Credit: Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino]
In what could be a far-reaching case, the Florida Supreme Court hears arguments today about whether Florida can expand gambling without a constitutional change and, if so, does it take Legislative approval. 
[Photo Credit: Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino]
Published Jun. 7, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Did the Florida Legislature quietly intend to allow counties to expand slot machines anywhere in the state in 2010 when it modified a statute that was initially intended to allow Hialeah Park to operate slot machines?

That was the question before the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday as owners for Gretna Racing argued that the rural racetrack should be allowed to install slot machines because it has the approval of county voters.

"This is likely the easiest case you're going to deal with today," said Marc Dunbar, lawyer, lobbyist and part-owner of Gretna Racing, on the same day the court heard arguments on the death penalty. "It will turn on the interpretation of a single word: after."

But Jonathan Williams, deputy solicitor general for the state, disagreed. He said the case relies on more than grammar and semantics and urged the court to uphold a First District Court of Appeal decision which voted 2-1 to reject Gretna's slots license because the Legislature did not authorize slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

"You either have to get the constitutional authorization or the legislative authorization," Williams told the court, and Gretna had neither.

If the court sides with Gretna, it could usher in the explosive growth of gambling across the state as at least five other counties — Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington — have already voted to bring casinos to their stressed horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons. It would also invalidate the $120 million-a-year gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Justice Barbara Pariente opened the questioning by suggesting that the ruling might not be as easy as Dunbar suggested.

She asked if the court must first decide whether the Legislature is authorized to expand gambling beyond a state lottery — an argument brought before the court by former Gov. Bob Graham in a brief. If the court sides with Graham, then neither the Legislature, nor counties by referendum, have the authority to expand gambling without voter approval.

"We have to first get to that point," Pariente said.

Dunbar said that's not an issue in the case because the court ruled in 2004 that the Legislature had the authority to expand gambling without voter approval, and the attorney general and solicitor general didn't raise the point.

The case hinges on a 2009 law in which the Legislature modified the implementing law relating to slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward by allowing Hialeah Park to be eligible for a slots license.

The race track was not an operating pari-mutuel facility when voters approved the statewide constitutional amendment allowing slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward in 2003 but, because Hialeah was located in Miami-Dade, legislators agreed to revise the law to include it among the casinos that could operate Class III slots.

The Legislature changed the law in 2010 to allow counties to authorize slot machines, but Williams said that change applies only if the Legislature or the state Constitution authorized the expansion. It does not authorize counties to hold a referendum "for the legal effect of providing an exemption to a statewide ban," he said.

But Gretna's lawyers challenged that claim, saying the law authorizes a license if a gaming company gets voter approval and runs pari-mutuel races for two years "after the effective date of this section."

Justices grilled Dunbar and Williams about what they saw as conflicting legislative intent.

Pariente asked Dunbar why lawmakers would authorize slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward but not specifically authorize them elsewhere.

"To basically say to 65 other counties you just have to have a referendum and, if you're a home rule [county], you're fine," she said. "This would have been a very, very significant expansion of slot machines… and there is nary a mention in the legislative record of this kind of change."

Dunbar suggested that when the language was first written in 2009, it was a compromise between the House, which opposed expanded gambling, and the Senate, which wanted to allow for slot machines in other parts of the state.

"They were trying to meet in the middle," he said. He noted that lawmakers also gave themselves a year to come back and modify the compact with the Seminole Tribe if they authorized gaming outside of Miami-Dade and Broward.

Legislative leaders reached by the Times/Herald, however, offered a divergent view of what lawmakers were thinking when they passed the law.

Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat and supporter of Gretna Racing, said he voted for the change to allow counties the opportunity to bring slot machines to their pari-mutuels and "our intent was never to hamstring the counties and tell them what they could not do."

But Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who has been at the core of the Legislature's gambling negotiations for the past seven years, said Tuesday that when lawmakers adopted the change to the state gaming law in 2010, they did not intend to open the door to the expansion of slot machines as Gretna Racing and five other pari-mutuels around the state are claiming.

"It was not the intent of the Legislature to open the door for counties to hold their own referendums to allow the expansion of slots," he said in an interview with the Times/Herald.

He said the Legislature wanted to clarify the terms of the referendum language in the event lawmakers would ever approve of an expansion of gaming in the future.

"We didn't want the Hialeah expansion to muddy the waters," he said. "Instead, we reiterated that if we approved legislatively expanded slots — or a legislatively constitutional amendment ... we didn't relinquish authority."

But instead of clarifying, the law has become another vehicle for gaming owners across the state to use as a method to get access to a lucrative slots license — which now are allowed only in Miami-Dade and Broward and at the seven casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe.

After the law was passed, Dunbar and his legal partner David Romanik joined with other investors and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama to build the racetrack in a low-income community north of Interstate 10 in Northwest Florida. If they succeed in getting a slots license, they hope to build the biggest entertainment and gambling complex east of Biloxi.

Galvano said that when the change to the law was being drafted no one — from pari-mutuel lobbyists to legislators — was "advocating for the independent ability of counties to expand based on referendum without legislative approval."

At the time, there was pressure from the pari-mutuel industry, which wanted slot machines, Galvano said. "But from the (legislative) members' standpoint, it was understood there would be an opportunity for Hialeah to expand, but that we were not expanding anywhere else," he said.

Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami lawyer who attended the oral arguments on behalf of Graham, agreed.

"Nobody was standing up and saying we're having a debate about 65 other counties," Gelber said. "The idea that in implementing that constitutional amendment, they would sort of under the table give 65 other counties that same right is sort of absurd ... If that had happened, I know a few of my colleagues whose heads would have exploded."

Justice Peggy Quince recused herself from the case. A spokesperson for the court said her daughter works for the gaming division of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Visitors head to Florida's Old Capitol building on Tuesday, the first day of the annual session. The same day, the advocacy group Equality Florida denounced four bills filed by Republican lawmakers, calling them “the most overtly anti-LGBTQ agenda from the Florida legislature in recent memory.” [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Most of the bills try to eliminate local ordinances, and Republicans say they’ve been unfairly labeled.
  2. Attorney Joseph Bondy tweeted this photo of his client, Lev Parnas (right) with former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi on Friday, Jan. 17. Bondi on Friday was named on of President Donald Trump's impeachment lawyers. [Twitter]
    Parnas’ lawyer tweeted out the photo of the former Florida attorney general along with #TheyAllKnew.
  3. In this Feb. 22, 2018 file photo, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, speaks to reporters outside the West Wing in Washington. President Donald Trump's legal team will include Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who led the Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton, according to a person familiar with the matter. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) [J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE  |  AP]
    The former Florida attorney general reportedly will join former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton.
  4. Florida Senator Rob Bradley, R- Fleming Island, watches the action on the first day of the session, 1/14/2020.  [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
    A popular bill would allow judges to dole out punishments less than the mandatory minimum sentences spelled out in state law for many drug crimes if the defendant meets certain criteria.
  5. Vice President Mike Pence take selfies with supporters after giving a campaign speech during the "Keep America Great" rally at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, January 16, 2020.  [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    ‘Come November the American people are going to have our say,’ Pence said.
  6. Rep. Stan McClain, an Ocala Republican, presents a bill that would allow Florida public colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools, during a January 2020 meeting of the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    Alternative authorizers have been found unconstitutional in the past. But that isn’t stopping the effort.
  7. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, members of the Florida Cabinet, left, and the Florida Supreme Court, right, stand at attention as the colors are posted in the Florida Senate during the first day of the Florida legislative session in Tallahassee, Tuesday, January 14, 2020.  [SCOTT KEELER  |  TAMPA BAY TIMES]
    The court ruled that Amendment 4‘s “all terms of sentence” include the payment of all court fees, fines and restitution.
  8. Thousands rallied and marched from the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center to the Florida Historic Capitol to demand more money for public schools Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Thousands of school workers from around the state thronged Florida's Capitol on Monday to press Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature to more than double the nearly $1 billion the governor is proposing for teacher raises and bonuses.  (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP) [TORI LYNN SCHNEIDER  |  AP]
    The PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee cutting exercise would come in nearly 25 percent below Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal.
  9. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,, center, speaks as fellow candidates businessman Tom Steyer, from left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. listen, Tuesday during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) [PATRICK SEMANSKY  |  AP]
    The candidates’ proposals reveal differences in how they plan to approach the issue.
  10. Vice President Mike Pence points to supporters before speaking during a campaign rally at the Huntington Center, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) [TONY DEJAK  |  AP]
    Vice President Mike Pence will take the stage in New Tampa, at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church, at 1:30 p.m. It wasn’t planned that way.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement