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County says no to new referendum
November ballot will not include question about slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities
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Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala is the only supporter of putting a referendum question on the November ballot on expanding slot machines into pari-mutuel facilities, such as Derby Lane in St. Petersburg.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners said no Aug. 5 to a request to put a referendum question on the November ballot to get voters’ opinion on legalizing slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities.

Commissioner Susan Latvala brought the request to the table during the “miscellaneous” section of the regularly scheduled meeting. Latvala said Richard Winning, vice president of the St. Petersburg Kennel Club and Derby Lane, the county’s only pari-mutuel facility, had contacted her about the matter.

Latvala reminded commissioners that the state legislature had talked about allowing slot machines at pari-mutuels in 2012 and asked the county to put a referendum on the ballot. But the legislature didn’t pass anything, and the matter was dropped.

She said the state is expected to consider an expansion of slot machines in the coming year, and the county was being asked to put a referendum on the November ballot to gauge voter interest.

Commission Chair Karen Seel expressed reluctance about putting a referendum on the ballot about a law that had not yet been passed.

“I assume it would be the same as last time,” Latvala said. “They want the ability to say our citizens support it.”

Commissioner Charlie Justice said other counties had taken a referendum vote on matters in the past that weren’t yet law and the attorney general had said they were not valid.

County Attorney Jim Bennett said the matter considered in 2012 was expansion of slot machines.

“How do you craft a question contingent on something that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.

He was concerned that the word limit on a ballot question would be insufficient. He also was concerned about the length of time available to come up with a question. He said any additions to the November ballot had to be turned in to the supervisor of elections office by 5 p.m. Aug. 19. Commissioners do have a meeting scheduled that day, beginning at 2 p.m.

In addition, adding the question could increase the cost of the election, as voters in Seminole would likely have two ballot cards.

“We believe (ballot) language could be crafted in such a way to get the message to the legislators,” Winning told commissioners.

He talked about the effect the state’s compact with the Seminole Tribe for gambling at the Hard Rock in Tampa had on Derby Lane, touted as the world’s oldest continuously operating greyhound racetrack. The facility at 10490 Gandy Blvd, St. Petersburg has been in operation since 1925. It offers greyhound racing, simulcast wagering on horse races and poker play.

“It’s hurt business,” he said. “We’re trying to survive.”

Slot machines could be the answer to the problem.

“We want a new product to offer our customers,” he said. “We’ve been in the same location since 1925 and have 500 employees.”

Commissioner Ken Welch said he was not opposed to putting the matter before the voters, but he was concerned about the timing.

Commission Chair Karen Seel said there were three opportunities to place a referendum on the ballot in 2015 – March 10, Aug. 25 and Nov. 3 – but there could be additional costs.

Welch asked what would be the purpose of having residents vote on something that was not yet law.

“To show the legislature that the people want it,” Winning said.

He said Sen. Jack Latvala is in support of legislation expanding slot machines into pari-mutuel facilities.

“This issue is very big,” said Commissioner Norm Roche.

He also was concerned about the “issue of timing.” He said a work session should be scheduled to discuss it.

“This is a big discussion. We should do our due diligence,” he said.

He suggested putting the item on next year’s legislative agenda if the commission wanted to support having slot machines at Derby Lane. He also suggested doing a scientific poll to find out citizen’s opinions.

Seel agreed with Roche that putting the matter on the legislative agenda was the right direction.

The commission voted 6-1 against putting a referendum on the November agenda. Latvala cast the only yes vote.
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