A controversial decision this month by Gadsden County, allowing voters to decide whether to have slot machines at the new Gretna horse race track, has prompted several copycat efforts in other counties, despite questions over the legality of slots.
Washington County, just north of Panama City, decided last week to let voters choose in January whether to allow slots at the Ebro Greyhound Race Track. In Lee County, the owner of a Bonita Springs race track is pressing county commissioners to consider a similar referendum. In Hamilton County, the owners of a race track are asking the state for a license to operate barrel racing, which can open the door for a slots referendum later.
The sudden departure from allowing slot machines solely in two South Florida counties to letting any county in Florida have slots stems from a 2009 law aimed at allowing slots at the Hialeah Park race track.
In 2004, Florida voters decided that slots would be allowed only in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The law was narrowly written so that only existing pari-mutuels could offer slots if voters approved through a referendum.
The change by the Legislature in 2009 was designed to allow just Hialeah Park race track, which wasn't open at the time of the referendum, to offer slots. But several competing pari-mutuel facilities sued over that law.
A subsequent appeals court decision said the Legislature had the legal authority to expand slots. The decision led the Gretna race track to interpret the law to mean that any pari-mutuel in Florida could apply for a slot machine license so long as it passed a countywide referendum and held a certain number of live races.
Barry Richard, an attorney for the Seminole Tribe, said the new potential county players are interpreting the law incorrectly and the rush to put slots on the ballots is a result of a "misunderstanding" of the law that started with the Gretna race track.
"(They) got everybody excited," Richard said. "I don't know whether they don't understand what they are reading and don't think anybody will notice. I think any lawyer who studies this stuff and looks at what the (law) says would realize it doesn't authorize slots."
Richard said if counties outside Miami-Dade and Broward do offer slots, it would stop the Seminole tribe's payments to the state, which are supposed to total $1 billion over five years.
Meanwhile, the opinion by the 1st District Court of Appeal that prompted some to believe any county in Florida could have slots, has been appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. The court has yet to decide whether to hear the case.
Richard said even if voters approve slots in North Florida counties, that does not mean slot machines will appear at the race tracks the following day. The pari-mutuels would still have to apply for a slots license from the state. And even if the state approves the license applications, lawsuits will likely be filed to stop the slots expansion.
The rush to approve slots may also be tied to the effort to allow luxury resort casinos in South Florida. A proposal to allow such casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade is crafted in such a way that, in theory, other counties outside South Florida could also build these "destination" resorts.
Bill sponsors and other gambling experts say the $2 billion minimum investment means it is unlikely a resort casino could be built outside South Florida.
Even if destination resorts stay in South Florida, pari-mutuels could see some benefit from the bill, either through paying lower taxes or being allowed to offer more games.