Palm Beach County voters may get kennel club slot machine choice on ballot next November

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 7:58 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011

Posted: 6:15 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011

TALLAHASSEE — Palm Beach County voters could decide next year whether to allow slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, under a proposal being floated by state Rep. Joseph Abruzzo.

The county’s legislative delegation is slated to vote on the local bill on Tuesday. If approved by the delegation and the legislature during the session that begins in January, the county commission could put a referendum question on the ballot, to ask voters whether to allow slot machines at Palm Beach County’s only existing pari-mutuel — PBKC.

A recent court ruling in a Hialeah Racetrack case found that the legislature has the authority to allow slot machines at pari-mutuels without a constitutional amendment. That ruling opened the door for PBKC to seek Las Vegas-style machines.

“When that happened was when we decided to make the move towards the local bill,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who represents the Rooney family that owns the kennel club.

That move and a “destination resort” casino proposal gaining currency in the Capitol — to allow three Vegas-style casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties — could indicate that once gambling-leery lawmakers may be more amenable to letting voters usher in slots in Palm Beach County.

The local bill is a separate issue, Abruzzo said.

“It is not to get us in on the destination resort. However, I believe we should be in on the destination resort,” the Wellington Democrat said.

Abruzzo said he is sponsoring the bill because he wants the county to cash in on some of the benefits he says Miami-Dade and Broward are already getting since voters in those counties authorized slot machines at existing pari-mutuels.

Slots at PBKC could reap about $25 million a year in state funds and about $1.8 million for the county at a minimum, Abruzzo said.

Abruzzo’s bill, if approved by the legislature and by voters in a referendum, would allow PBKC to start running the slot machines in July of 2015, when an exclusivity agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe expires. Allowing slots earlier could jeopardize that deal and run the risk of losing the state $250 million a year the tribe is now paying for exclusive rights to operate slot machines, except for the seven pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade.

In the Panhandle, Gadsden County commissioners this week approved putting a referendum on the ballot in January that would allow voters to approve slot machines at a horse track in Gretna. But those close to the Palm Beach County proposal say that doing so without legislative approval is a risk, although the county could put the referendum on the ballot even if the local bill does not pass.

The county commission has not yet taken a position on Abruzzo’s bill. The county opposes legislation that has an adverse impact on existing pari-mutuels, the county’s legislative lobbyist Todd Bonlarron said.

“I don’t think we’re opposed to it,” Bonlarron said. The earliest the commission would be likely to put the referendum before voters would likely be on the November general election ballot next year, Bonlarron said.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, sponsor of the destination resort measure and also the county delegation chairwoman, said she will likely allow a vote on the Palm Beach County bill at the delegation meeting Tuesday, although she does not support it.

Bogdanoff, who has typically voted against expanding gambling in the state, said she sponsored the bill because she wants to create a statewide gaming commission and to establish a “strategic vision” for gambling in Florida in the future.

“I’ve got the bill out there that’s going to address all of these things in a holistic way. I want to know how the legislature as a whole feels about this type of expansion before, before I would, in bits in pieces, start supporting an expansion,” Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said Thursday. “It would be probably hypocritical of me to support a bill like this, when basically my whole position is that we need to harness it and control it before we continue to allow it to expand.”

While Bogdanoff and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, are against the local bill, the majority of the delegation is likely to support it. Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, sponsored a similar destination resorts bill earlier this year.

“They understand that PBKC is an important employer in the county and we’re missing out on bringing hundreds of new jobs to the county. Folks we’ve met with are supportive of it and want to hear more about it but are supportive,” Ballard said.

Abruzzo said his long-term goal is to include Palm Beach County in the destination resort bill while acknowledging that the measure’s House sponsor, Erik Fresen, is adamant that the casinos be limited to Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“But yes, the long-term intent, if the voters choose, would be destination casinos down the road depending on how things proceed with the state. But I’m going to be advocating throughout the committee process that Palm Beach County should be included in the destination casinos,” Abruzzo said.

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