TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A casino proposal gaining traction in the Capitol could open the door for new kinds of gambling, including slot machines, in Palm Beach County.
State Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican whose district includes part of Palm Beach County, is pushing a plan to create a statewide gambling commission and allow up to three full-fledged, non-tribal casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
It's possible the plan also could give Palm Beach County the chance to vie for the Las Vegas-style "destination resorts," but unlikely, said Marc Dunbar, a lawyer who specializes in gambling.
Bogdanoff's bill (SB 710) would allow the commission to grant a casino license in counties where voters have approved slot machines or other "limited gaming" such as baccarat, blackjack, craps or roulette, and the only two counties in the state where that's been done are Broward and Miami-Dade.
But a recent state appellate decision could make it easier for Palm Beach and other counties that have pari-mutuels to get in the game.
In a case involving the Hialeah Park racetrack, the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled that when the legislature authorized a deal with the Seminole Tribe last year, it also gave permission to counties such as Palm Beach that have racetracks or jai-alai frontons to hold referendums to allow slots without further action by state lawmakers.
If Bogdanoff's bill were to become law, Palm Beach County commissioners would have to put a referendum for slots or other gambling on the ballot and get voters to approve it before the new gambling commission awarded the three available licenses to sites in Miami-Dade and Broward, Dunbar said.
That's a stretch, he said.
"Palm Beach would have to get together very quickly because this commission could be considering licenses by next year. So they would need to get it on the 2012 ballot," Dunbar said. "The verbiage of the bill implies that Dade and Broward are where they're going to put the three licenses, but it did open the window for one of these other counties to have a license if the commission waits for other counties to schedule their local referenda. I doubt the commission would do that."
Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, who said he's unfamiliar with the details of the bill, said it's something the county should consider.
"Certainly if it's going to take a referendum, my opinion is we should put it on the ballot. We should not be left out of the mix," Aaronson said.
Palm Beach Kennel Club lobbyist Brian Ballard said the Rooney family, which owns the dog track in suburban West Palm Beach, supports the proposal but wants more.
"We're going to use this as a starting point. We're happy they're doing the bill. We're happy it's out there," said Ballard, who also represents Bayfront 2011 Development, a subsidiary of Genting Malaysia, an international casino company that is one of the driving forces behind the proposed legislation.
Apart from higher-stakes games, pari-mutuels like the kennel club are hoping the final legislation, yet to be heard in committee, will lower the current 35 percent tax rate for racetracks that also offer slot machines. In comparison, the three proposed casinos would pay a tax rate of 10 percent under Bogdanoff's bill.
Nearly two-thirds of Bogdanoff's Senate district is in Palm Beach County. She said she would have liked to include the county in the casino proposal but feared that would threaten support from lawmakers already leery of expanding gambling in the state.
"We may have a problem. How do you justify Palm Beach County and not go to other counties? The justification is we already have it in Dade and Broward," Bogdanoff said.
She predicted her bill, filed last week but still in its preliminary stages, will undergo significant changes, including concessions to the pari-mutuels, by the time it passes its first committee in the Senate.
"It's going to look like a dog chewed on it. I think they're going to throw everything into this," she said.
The county's legislative delegation, led by Bogdanoff, hasn't weighed in yet on the proposal. Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, supported a similar proposal this year.
At least one member calls it a bad idea for Florida, already too dependent on tourism and growth.
"Taking that step is the wrong direction," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "It's more reliance on sales tax, nothing that varies the type of revenue income that would provide a stable base for the state economy."
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