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Wednesday, Oct 22, 2014

Pari-mutuels out of luck on ballot request


Published:

— November’s general-election ballot will not include a referendum on legalizing slot machines at dog and race tracks.

Pinellas County commissioners voted 6-1 Tuesday to deny a request from Derby Lane Vice President Jack Winning to put the issue to voters ahead of an expected overhaul of Florida’s gaming laws by state lawmakers in 2015, when part of the state’s compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida expires.

The referendum would have been nonbinding because a change in state law also is needed.

Winning said his greyhound track struggles to compete with the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa, which is allowed to offer slot machine gambling through the compact.

“We’ve been in an environment that is not very conducive to us over the years,” he said. “By allowing this referendum on there, we can convince the Legislature or let the people make the choice and convince us this is what they want in the community.”

But commissioners expressed concern about having to draw up a referendum by Aug. 19, the last day that the Supervisor of Elections can accept anything for inclusion on the ballot.

They also said it does not make sense to ask voters to approve slots when state lawmakers have yet to decide what restrictions on gambling they will lift in the 2015 legislative session.

“The state hasn’t passed any legislation,” Chairwoman Karen Seel said. “This would be in advance without knowing what the state law would say.”

Another concern was that the Supervisor of Elections Office has indicated that adding referendum language may extend the ballot to an extra page in some communities, meaning the county may have to pay toward the cost, County Attorney Jim Bennett said.

Instead, commissioners agreed to discuss adding legalization of slots at pari-mutuels onto their legislative platform, a list of issues they plan to lobby state lawmakers to address.

Slot machines are legal in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Voters in several other counties, including Brevard, Lee and Palm Beach, approved referendums on slots in 2012, but Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi ruled that those referendums do not usurp state law.

The Seminole Tribe’s five-year agreement with the state gives it a monopoly on offering casino games like blackjack and baccarat, and a monopoly on slots at four casinos outside Broward and Miami-Dade, including Tampa.

In exchange, the tribe pays the state a minimum of $234 million a year.

Derby Lane, on Gandy Boulevard, has been open since 1925 and employs about 500 people.

Customers there can play poker, and bet on greyhound races and simulcast horse races.

Winning said slots would be a welcome shot in the arm for a business he said was hurting.

“I’d hate to get to the point where I would have to close the doors and send 500 employees out,” Winning said.

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 828-6757

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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