TALLAHASSEE — Florida law doesn’t allow slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Attorney General Pam Bondi said in an advisory opinion Thursday.
Bondi wrote that the state cannot issue slot machine licenses to a barrel racing facility and dog track even if voters in two Panhandle counties give their approval later this month. A law allowing for approval of slots through countywide referendums applies only to the two South Florida counties, she concluded.
Such votes are scheduled for the Jan. 31 presidential primary in Gadsden and Washington counties.
Marc Dunbar, a lawyer and part owner of Gretna Racing in Gadsden, disagreed.
"Fortunately, the Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions that these advisory opinions have no binding effect," Dunbar said in a statement.
Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Ken Lawson said his agency, which regulates pari-mutuel wagering, was still reviewing Bondi’s opinion but that he intended to follow her guidelines.
The Washington County referendum is for slots at Ebro Greyhound Track. At least two other counties, Palm Beach and Hamilton, are planning similar votes later this year.
Dunbar said he looked forward to meeting Bondi "in court, where law, not politics will ultimately decide the issue."
If so, it would be one more in a growing list of legal cases triggered by state approval last year of betting on barrel racing, a women’s rodeo event, at the Gretna facility. That was followed by authority to open a card room.
At least six other pari-mutuel facilities now have applied for barrel racing permits.
A pair of organizations of traditional, flat-track quarter horse owners and breeders are challenging the Gretna permit before an administrative law judge. They contend the facility’s owners are using barrel racing as a low-cost way to get around racing regulations to qualify for the more lucrative card room and possibly slots.
Related cases are pending in trial and appellate courts in Tallahassee.
Bondi’s opinion cited the law’s plain language and legislative intent expressed by its sponsor during floor debate in 2010.
Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, then said the Legislature would have to pass another law if it intended to allow a slots referendum outside of Miami-Dade or Broward. Jones also said passing such a law would violate a compact with the state that gives the Seminole Tribe of Florida exclusive rights to slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward.
Former state Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat who now chairs the pro-slots group Jobs for Gadsden, had a different view.
"I worked closely on the bill that gave voters the right to determine if they want to allow slots in their county," he said in a statement. "The Legislature’s intent was clear when we passed the bill and the law is clear."
Lawson said he wasn’t surprised that a Republican attorney general would try to prevent votes from being counted in Gadsden County, a Democratic stronghold west of Tallahassee.
Gretna Racing’s partners include the Alabama-based Poarch Band of Creek Indians.