TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Despite narrow approval by a House committee Tuesday, odds remain long that lawmakers will sign off on a gambling proposal that could do away with dog racing, pave the way for Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida and open the door for slot machines in Lee and Palm Beach counties.
The House Finance & Tax Committee signed off on the measure with a 10-8 vote after committee Chairman Matt Gaetz asked House Speaker Steve Crisafulli to help ensure approval by appointing to the panel an extra Republican member who was a guaranteed “yes” vote.
The measure, sponsored by House Majority Leader Dana Young, centers around “decoupling” greyhound racing at dog tracks. Young’s plan would allow greyhound tracks to keep more lucrative gambling activities, such as slots and poker rooms, but allow the tracks to end greyhound racing altogether.
An attempt to amend the measure to allow horse tracks and jai alai frontons with slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, to also stop racing or holding matches, failed Tuesday.
But a revamped version of the bill (HB 1233) released late Monday included a last-minute carve-out for a Northwest Florida racetrack: to allow rodeo-style barrel racing as a pari-mutuel activity. A court ruled last year that gambling regulators erred when they granted a controversial license to Gretna Racing, located in Gadsden County, that authorized the rodeo-style racing. The license allowed the track’s operators, who hope to add slot machines, to open a lucrative card room.
South Florida “racinos” — pari-mutuel facilities that also have slot machines and poker rooms — are split on Young’s greyhound decoupling plan, opposed by horse breeders and owners.
Requiring horse tracks to keep racing “would allow certain operators to have legislative competitive advantages over other operators,” said Donn Mitchell, chief administrative officer for Isle of Capri, which owns Pompano Park Race Course and Casino.
“It is a bad business principle and a bad precedent to put forth,” Mitchell said, speaking on behalf of two other South Florida tracks.
But Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who held a meeting attended by pari-mutuel lobbyists late Monday evening, argued that the plan would be a humane way to finally put an end to an activity whose heyday has faded.
In visits to dog tracks, “I saw dogs running for their life with nobody watching,” Moskowitz said. “There’s a dozen people in the stands built for 5,000.”
The proposal, which has the support of animal rights groups, would also include requiring tracks to report injuries to greyhounds to the state.
Moskowitz called dissension over the gambling bill “a battle of morals,” referring to House Republicans’ opposition to any gambling measure. That was highlighted by Tuesday’s vote, which required Democrats’ support to get the bill through the GOP-dominated committee.
“I get it. … And for me the moral is that I don’t think the government indirectly and unintentionally should mandate animal cruelty, because that’s what’s happening,” he said.
Tuesday’s close vote could also telegraph trouble getting full support from the House for the bill, now headed to the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by conservative future Speaker Richard Corcoran. Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has opposed gambling legislation in the past, and, with no more committee meetings scheduled, the powerful GOP leader would have to hold a special meeting to hear the bill. Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, could also have the bill sent directly to the floor, but it is questionable if supporters have enough Republican votes for passage.
A Senate gambling bill, which was approved by one committee before being tabled, is also unlikely to pass, according to Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley. Bradley has insisted that the state needs to first decide what to do about a deal giving the Seminole Tribe of Florida exclusive rights to banked card games such as blackjack, set to expire on June 30.
Bradley proposed an extension of the agreement for another year after negotiations with the tribe came to a standstill earlier this month.
“Nothing’s changed as far as the Senate’s position is concerned. We think that the first thing we need to deal with is the compact. And, until we have some resolution of the compact, then it is premature to turn to these other issues,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.
“The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.”