Supreme slots ruling could expand Florida gambling

May 4, 2012

Will a recent Supreme Court decision to allow more slot machines in South Florida lead to expansion of gambling throughout the rest of the state? Sascha Cordner delves into a recent decision by the high court to uphold a lower court ruling.

In 2004, Florida voters approved a state constitutional amendment that allows several pari-mutuel facilities in South Florida to carry slot machines. That means places, like dog tracks and horse tracks, could now have slots in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.

But, when historic Horse track, Hialeah Park, started carrying slot machines, some of its competition, like Calder Race Course and Flagler Dog Track, filed a lawsuit against the Hialeah track. Opponents contended Hialeah was not included in the amendment.

But, in 2009, Hialeah Park got the Florida Legislature to pass a bill that allows the track to carry slots by law. That was the main reason the Florida Supreme Court upheld the ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeals that the South Florida track can carry slots, and in a 5-2 opinion, dismissed the case.

John Brunetti Senior, the CEO of the Hialeah Track, says there’s one emotion that can sum up how he feels:

“Very much relieved!”

He says one of the reasons the ruling was in Hialeah’s favor was because it was an issue of equity:

“Our decision was really just to give us an equal playing ground because you have eight pari-mutuels in the Dade and Broward Counties, and we were the only ones that did not have the slot operations. So, there was an equitable thing there and it’s not an extension of gaming, it’s just correcting it.”

Brunetti says the ruling just gives the Legislature the authority to decide whether to allow more slot machines. While some say it now opens to the door to the expansion of gaming across the state, Brunetti says that’s not true.

“It’s not going to make it was wide open as people think because everyone feels that the allowance of our doing the slot machines  would allow any facility anywhere in the state and that’s really not the case, and I don’t think that’s really something the people of Florida have to worry about at the moment.”

But, John Sowinski argues the high court’s recent ruling does allow for the expansion of gambling. He’s the President of No Casinos Incorporated, an anti-gambling advocacy group.

I think to have slot machines legalized to go into a facility where it wasn’t previously is an expansion of gambling. And, Gambling is the only human endeavor where the solution of having too much of it is to have even more. And, so we have folks who are in that business all the time saying ‘what’s the big deal? We have it over here, and why not have over there?’ And, pretty soon it’s blanketing the entire state. So, we’re concerned that is an expansion of gambling. I don’t know how any reasonable person could conclude otherwise.”

Sowinski says the quality of life and public safety is at stake with rulings like this, and he says it may be time for a constitutional amendment to stop attempts to expand gambling in the state.

“I think that there’s always been an expectation that Florida’s Constitution prohibits forms of high-stakes gambling that are not approved by the voters. And, so this is really a dramatic change in the status quo and that is something that we’ll be talking to folks across the state about to see if there’s that kind of support for that either legislatively placed or by petition drive.”

Sowinski says for now, he’s happy that the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation are still willing to abide by an advisory opinion Attorney General Pam Bondi issued in January.

It says the agency, which regulates pari-mutuels and slot gaming industries, should not grant slot machine licenses based on county referendums. That opinion affects Washington, Gadsden, and Hamilton counties, where voters recently approved referendums to allow slot machines.

But, Marc Dunbar says Bondi should prepare for a fight. He’s an attorney and minority partner of a pari-mutuel facility in Gretna, which is located in Gadsden County.

 “Me along with a number of other lawyers that represent pari-mutuel in Florida, will, I’m sure be arguing in front of a judge sometime in the future that her Attorney General opinion isn’t the best statement of Florida law, and that there are other controlling cases out of the Supreme Court that should guide a trial judge and this non-binding opinion really isn’t worth following.”

Dunbar, like Brunetti, does not believe the Supreme Court’s ruling opens the door for more slot machines across the state, and says it really only applies to Dade County. He says what people really should be looking at is a recently filed lawsuit by Palm Beach County that could overturn Bondi’s opinion that county referendums don’t count and allow slot machines outside Dade and Broward Counties.