Advocates for expanded gambling in Florida have had their efforts thwarted in the Legislature in recent years. Now, they’ve pinned their hopes on a new venue, where there are fewer people to win over: the state’s highest court.
This week Florida’s seven Supreme Court justices heard arguments for and against allowing slot machines at a small horse track in Gadsden County. If at least four justices rule in favor of Gretna Racing, the decision could clear the way for slots to sprout, without legislative action, in at least five other counties, including Brevard.
But if justices heed the state law at issue, and listen to legislators who passed it, they’ll rightly reject the track’s bid and block this big-time, back-door expansion of gambling.
Currently, Florida allows slots at state-licensed pari-mutuels — horse and dog tracks, and jai-alai frontons — in only two counties, Miami-Dade and Broward. That authorization came from a 2004 constitutional amendment approved statewide by voters, followed by the passage of local referendums to permit slots in both counties.
Because of a federal law, slot machines also are allowed at seven casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. But the 2010 gambling compact between the Seminoles and the state gave the tribe exclusive rights to operate slots outside of pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
A lawyer and part-owner of the Gretna track argued before justices that a state law the Legislature passed in 2009 to expand slot machines to another track in Miami-Dade also gave other counties permission to hold their own referendums to allow slots at local pari-mutuels. Gadsden County voters authorized slots in a 2012 referendum. Voters in five other counties have green-lighted slots in similar referendums.
But lawyers representing the state refuted that interpretation of the 2009 law. They said it allows slots in other counties only if first authorized by the Legislature or another constitutional amendment.
Their interpretation was backed up in no uncertain terms by state Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and lawyer who was the point man on gambling policy in the Florida House when the 2009 law was drafted and passed. “It was not the intent of the Legislature to open the door for counties to hold their own referendums to allow the expansion of slots,” he told The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau.
And because the Seminole compact stipulated that their casinos would not face competition from slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Florida receives about $120 million a year in revenue-sharing payments from the tribe. Those payments would disappear if a wave of additional counties allowed slots.
While we are normally sympathetic to the principle of home rule for local governments, gambling is one of the policy areas where we make an exception. Academic studies have shown that negative economic and social impacts of expanding gambling in one jurisdiction — such as spending diverted from other businesses, addiction and crime — don’t stop at its borders. And turning pari-mutuels in counties on the outskirts of Central Florida into slots parlors also could degrade the region’s successful family-friendly brand for tourism.
Any groups that are bound and determined to expand slots at pari-mutuels beyond the two counties in South Florida need to do it the way the law provides: through the Legislature or the constitution. The state Supreme Court would be wrong to create a shortcut for them.