Hialeah Slots Issue Before Appeals Court
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In a case with potentially statewide implications, an appeals court heard arguments Wednesday in a Miami-Dade County industry fight about whether the Hialeah race track should be able to offer slot machines.
Miami Jai-Alai and Calder Casino & Race Course contend that a 2004 constitutional amendment, which paved the way for slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, does not apply to Hialeah Park.
Lawmakers approved a measure in 2010 that allowed Hialeah to add slots. Calder and Miami Jai-Alai asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to overturn a Leon County judge's ruling last year that upheld the law.
Bruce Rogow, an attorney for Calder, said the law would make a "mockery" of the voter-approved constitutional amendment, which applied to seven pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward.
"It would be a grand surprise to find out now that the Legislature … (could) in Dade and Broward counties expand the universe of slot machines,'' Rogow said.
But Hialeah attorney Raoul Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, said the constitutional amendment did not bar lawmakers from making other decisions to allow slot machines.
"There is nothing wrong with this statute,'' Cantero told a three-judge panel of the DCA. "It is perfectly consistent with the constitutional amendment on the ballot.''
While disagreeing about whether the 2004 amendment places limits on slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward, Cantero and Rogow appeared to agree that it does not prevent the Legislature from passing laws that would allow slots in other areas of the state.
But Joel Perwin, an attorney for the parent company of Miami Jai-Alai, said voters thought they were approving a narrow amendment that only would allow slot machines in two counties. He said voters earlier had rejected three constitutional amendments aimed at expanded gambling.
"They didn't want casinos and slot gaming all over the state,'' Perwin said about the 2004 amendment.
The appeals judges did not make a decision Wednesday. But with at least some of their questions, judges appeared skeptical about Perwin's position.
Judge Nikki Clark, for example, told Perwin she didn't read the amendment to say that only two counties would "ever, ever" be allowed to have slot machines.
The pari-mutuel industry in recent years has sought repeatedly to use games such as slot machines and poker to try to offset declines in horse racing, dog racing and jai alai. If Hialeah operates slots, it could draw customers away from Calder and Miami Jai-Alai.
Calder offers slots, while Miami Jai-Alai is preparing to do so.
The constitutional amendment, which voters statewide approved by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent, allowed Miami-Dade and Broward to hold referendums about whether to allow slot machines. It also, however, said those referendums would apply only to gambling facilities that offered races or games, such as jai alai, in the two previous years.
Voters in both counties ultimately approved such referendums. But the historic Hialeah track did not qualify because it had shut down thoroughbred racing in 2001, according to court records.
The track's operator, South Florida Racing Association LLC, began holding quarter-horse races at the track in 2009. Though the law passed in 2010, Cantero said Hialeah has not started operating slot machines.