BOCA RATON, Fla. — A proposal to expand gambling by allowing slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club cleared an early hurdle Tuesday when Palm Beach County's legislative delegation endorsed a bill calling for a voter referendum on the matter.
If the full legislature passes the bill next year, county voters would have the final say on whether to allow slots at the dog track near Palm Beach International Airport west of West Palm Beach.
Seven pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties already have voter-approved slots. Voters in those counties approved slot machines after an amendment to the Florida constitution allowed the two counties to conduct referendums.
But a recent appellate court ruling involving Hialeah Racetrack found that the legislature has the authority to allow slot machines at pari-mutuels without a constitutional amendment. Brian Ballard, a lobbyist for the Palm Beach Kennel Club, said the decision to push for the Palm Beach County slots bill was made after that decision by the state's 1st District Court of Appeal.
That decision is being appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, but the sponsor of the bill calling for a Palm Beach County slots referendum, state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said he's confident the appellate ruling will stand.
Local bills that are backed by county delegations usually win easy approval in the legislature. But gambling is often a hot-button issue, and the legislature in 2012 will also be considering a bill to allow three Las Vegas-style "destination resort" casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Garden, has expressed skepticism about the destination resort bill, saying he remains "philosophically opposed to the expansion of gaming in the state," but he has not taken a position on Abruzzo's bill.
While Abruzzo's bill is separate from the destination casinos bill, he said his long-term goal is for Palm Beach County to be included with Broward and Miami-Dade as an approved site for casinos. Voter approval of slot machines at the dog track would put Palm Beach County in a "posture" for casinos, Abruzzo said.
Local lawmakers approved Abruzzo's bill on a 9-1 vote with state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, voting no. Two other lawmakers were not present for the vote.
Pafford noted that the kennel club is near the Westgate Community Redevelopment Agency, which Pafford says has "a tremendous amount of challenges...The argument can be made that the slot machines will enhance that CRA and that certainly could be true, but I prefer to be cautious."
The kennel club's president is state Rep. Pat Rooney Jr., R-Palm Beach Gardens. Rooney did not attend Tuesday's meeting because of a scheduling conflict. But he said that if he had attended he would not have participated in the slots discussion or voted on Abruzzo's bill because it would directly affect his business.
The sponsor of the destination resort bill is state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who also chairs the county delegation. Bogdanoff left Tuesday's meeting before the vote on Abruzzo's bill, but said in an interview beforehand that she was opposed to it.
Bogdanoff said she does not favor expanding gambling and her destination casino bill is an attempt to "harness and kind of control gaming from a public-policy standpoint at the state level and decide the direction."
Bogdanoff said allowing slots at the dog track would continue "the haphazard, hodgepodge approach that we've had to gaming."
Abruzzo said allowing slot machines at the Kennel Club would boost state tax collections by at least $25 million and bring about $2 million in additional tax revenue to Palm Beach County.
If the legislature and county voters approve, Abruzzo's bill would allow slot machines beginning in July 2015. That's when an exclusive gambling agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe expires. The tribe is paying the state $250 million a year to be the only operator of slot machines aside from the seven pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade.