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Court Backs Slot Machines At North Florida Racetrack

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – In what could be a game changer in Florida's gambling arena, an appeals court Friday ordered state regulators to allow slot machines at a Gadsden County racetrack.

The 2-1 decision issued by the 1st District Court of Appeal could have statewide implications in counties where voters have approved allowing slot machines at local pari-mutuels.

Gambling regulators at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation rejected Gretna Racing's request for slot machines late in 2013, relying in part on an opinion issued by Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office represented the agency in the lawsuit.

Gadsden County voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a referendum authorizing slots at the track, which also made history after receiving the country's first pari-mutuel license for rodeo-style barrel racing. A court later ruled that state regulators had issued that permit in error.

Voters in five other counties --- Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington --- have given a thumbs-up to slots at local horse or dog tracks. Only the tracks in Gadsden and Palm Beach counties, however, have applied for slot-machine licenses thus far. Palm Beach Kennel Club's application for a slots machine license was also denied.

The Gretna slots case hinged on a semantic analysis of a 2009 law establishing eligibility for slot machines at pari-mutuels. The 2009 law, which went into effect the following year, was an expansion of a 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment that authorized slot machines at seven existing horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The 2009 change allowed a Hialeah track, which wasn't operating at the time the amendment was approved, to also operate the lucrative slots. The statute in question consists of three clauses, including one that deals with counties outside of Broward and Miami-Dade.

Echoing Bondi's opinion, which was not legally binding, state regulators argued that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation denied the racetrack a license because it "is not authorized to issue a slot machine license to a pari-mutuel facility in a county which … holds a countywide referendum to approve such machines, absent a statutory or constitutional provision enacted after July 1, 2010, authorizing such a referendum."

But two of the appellate judges agreed with lawyers for the Gretna horsetrack, who argued that the statute does not contain the word "enacted."

The judges also rejected the state's argument that counties outside of Miami-Dade and Broward would have to get authorization from the Legislature or a constitutional change in order to be able to have slot machines.

That was already the case before the 2009 law, Judge Robert T. Benton wrote in the 22-page majority opinion, which was joined by Judge Nikki Ann Clark.

"There was no need or purpose in enacting a statutory provision to state the obvious," Benton wrote.

But in a 28-page dissent, Judge Scott Makar argued that lawmakers can create statutes that will have an impact on future activities.

"Nothing prohibits legislation that has a contingency that makes a statute effective only upon some triggering event. … And nothing prohibits the Legislature from enacting a statute that operates as a restraint on society with a stated understanding about how that restraint might be eliminated in the future," Makar wrote. "Not all statutes are blossoms; some are only seeds."

State regulators and Bondi's office said they were reviewing the opinion. Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gretna and is also a part-owner of the facility, was unavailable for comment. Gadsden County is a largely rural county west of Tallahassee.

The highly-anticipated opinion sent ripples throughout Florida's gambling community Friday afternoon.

The ruling, if it stands, could have implications on a $1 billion deal the state has with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Under the agreement, the tribe can stop its payments to the state if pari-mutuels outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties start operating slots.

The decision comes as lawmakers are negotiating another part of the deal, called a "compact," that gives the Seminoles exclusive rights to operate banked card games such as blackjack at most of its facilities. The card portion of the compact expires in July unless the Legislature reauthorizes it or strikes a new pact.

Legislative leaders and the tribe failed to reach an agreement on a new deal before the regular legislative session ended in May, and the issue is not expected to be addressed during a special session on the budget that begins Monday.

Palm Beach Kennel Club lobbyist Brian Ballard hailed Friday's ruling.

"This absolutely strengthens our hand with regard to the upcoming negotiations on the gaming bill, vis a vis the compact. It's exactly what we were told we were getting five years ago by the Senate. The court agrees with that. So we're optimistic," Ballard said.

The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.

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