TALLAHASSEE (AP) — In a major blow to Florida’s struggling dog and horse tracks, the state’s high court on Thursday rejected a lawsuit that contended tracks could add slot machines as long as local voters had approved them.
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the owners of a track located 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Tallahassee did not have the legal authority to install slot machines even though Gadsden County voters said ‘yes’ in a referendum.
The ruling has a far-reaching effect since several other counties statewide — including Palm Beach in south Florida and Duval in northeast Florida — have held similar referendums based on a 2009 change in law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The owners of the track in Gretna contended that the change — which was part of a gambling overhaul that allowed the Seminole Tribe of Florida to add blackjack to its casinos — opened the door to local control over slot machines.
This position, however, was rejected by Attorney General Pam Bondi and state regulators. Officials have refused to let the track install the machines.
The court sided with Bondi and said track owners had misread the 2009 legislation, adding that the idea counties could allow slot machines “was nowhere to be found” in existing law.
“A county cannot initiate a referendum that will authorize the division to issue a license any more than the county could itself issue a slot machine gaming license,” Justice Charles Canady wrote for the court.
Creek Entertainment Gretna opened the track in December 2011. The facility offers flat track horse racing as well as poker rooms and betting on races held at other tracks.
Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for Creek Entertainment, said the owners were “disappointed” with the ruling, adding it meant that the track would be “unable to create new jobs.”
Gambling is supposed to be “illegal” in Florida, but really isn’t. There’s plenty of it around the state, often tucked away from theme parks and beaches in locations known mostly to locals and retirees who visit the state in winter.
While the state lacks high-end casinos like Las Vegas, the Seminole Tribe operates several casinos, including Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Tampa and Hollywood. Dog and horse tracks are scattered statewide, but only those in south Florida have been permitted to install slot machines thanks to a 2004 constitutional amendment approved by voters. The tribe was given permission to offer blackjack back in 2010, but that provision is now the target of a separate lawsuit between the state and the Seminoles.
During their recently concluded session, Florida lawmakers considered a major gambling bill that would have made it clear that tracks outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties could add slot machines. Senate Republicans backed the change, but House Republicans held firm against the proposal, causing the gambling legislation to die once the session ended.
Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who sponsored the gambling bill, said the ruling may help legislators reach an agreement in 2018.
“This confirmation of legislative authority removes a significant obstacle in our negotiations with the Seminole Tribe, providing clarity that as we move forward the Legislature, rather than the courts, will determine what expansion looks like and where it takes place,” Galvano said.