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Local / State

Rural County Points To High Stakes In Slots Issue

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Rural Gadsden County might seem an unlikely legal battleground for slot machines.

But as the Florida Supreme Court considers a potentially far-reaching case about slot machines at a pari-mutuel facility in the Gadsden County city of Gretna, local officials hope they can help sway the court in favor of a voter-approved gambling expansion.

The Supreme Court last week approved a request from the city of Gretna to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of allowing lucrative slot machines at the pari-mutuel, Gretna Racing. That was followed Monday by Gadsden County seeking to formally intervene in the case or, at a minimum, be allowed to file a friend-of-the-court brief that would back a 2012 slots referendum in the county.

In a motion filed last week, the city pointed to the economic stakes of allowing slot machines at the pari-mutuel. It said a "master plan" ultimately envisions building one or more convention hotels, along with restaurants and shops.

"The city of Gretna has a vital economic interest in ensuring that the master plan will come to fruition and the success of the plan depends on the issuance of the (slots) permit that is at issue in the case before the court,'' said the motion, written by Philip Padovano, a former 1st District Court of Appeal judge representing the city.

The Supreme Court agreed Dec. 1 to decide whether Gretna Racing should be allowed to have slot machines without the express permission of the Legislature. The racetrack took the case to the Supreme Court after a divided 1st District Court of Appeal in October sided with Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott's administration in ruling that legislative approval was needed for slots.

The October ruling undid an earlier ruling from the appeals court that favored Gretna Racing.

The issues in the case focus on disputed interpretations of a 2009 gambling law. But while ground zero in the case is Gadsden County -- which is west of Tallahassee and had a population last year of roughly 46,000 people -- the outcome could also determine whether slot machines are allowed in Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington counties.

In each of those counties, voters approved referendums to allow slot machines. In its motion to intervene Monday, Gadsden County argued it had the right to authorize a referendum that would clear the way for slots.

"In the majority opinion, the First DCA (District Court of Appeal) found that Gadsden County did not have the authority to authorize the conduct of a binding gambling referendum without further statutory or constitutional authorization, and that the referendum was a non-binding expression of voter sentiment,'' the motion said. "The majority opinion on these points is contrary to established Florida law."

The Supreme Court has not set a date for oral arguments in the case. Attorneys for Gretna Racing filed a brief Monday outlining their positions on the legal issues, and the state is expected to reply in mid-January.

Already lining up with the state, however, is No Casinos, Inc., which has received approval to file a brief with the court.

"The movant (No Casinos) is concerned that if this expansion of gambling devices is allowed (and by logical extension, allowed for similar facilities in other counties), that will lead to proliferation of such devices, and will generally encourage casino-type gambling, contrary to the public interest and contrary to the law,'' the Orlando-based group said in its motion seeking to file a brief.