LEGISLATURE 2014

Bill to reduce greyhound racing in Florida dies

 

A measure to give dog track owners a break by allowing them to stage fewer live greyhound races fell victim to the perennial tug-of-war between the state’s racetracks and jai-alai frontons.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

A proposal to end the requirement that dog tracks race greyhounds in order to keep their gaming permits died Tuesday on a procedural vote in the Florida Senate.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s decision not to take up the proposal means that Florida’s 13 remaining greyhound tracks will operate for another year as they do today, following the same racing schedules they have been required to follow for more than a decade.

The committee approved a less-restrictive dog racing bill (SB 742) that would track operators and dog trainers to report race-related injuries to state gaming regulators. If the bill passes, it will be the first time in Florida greyhound racing history that track operators have been required to report injuries. Florida is one of only two states that do not require injury reporting.

Animal-rights activists had hoped the Legislature would pass the so-call “decoupling” bill that would have allowed tracks to reduce their racing schedules and, ultimately, end dog racing.

Florida has more greyhound racing than any other state, but the racing schedule is tethered to a 1997 law that allowed track owners to operate poker rooms only if they operated 90 percent of the races they held back then.

The Senate Appropriations Committee failed to take up the measure after the proposal, by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, was subjected to a rules challenge by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Latvala, a supporter of the pari-mutuel industry, said the proposal was too broad of an expansion of the original bill and violated Senate rules. In addition to reducing the schedule of live races, the bill would have changed the tax rates on racetracks, revised permits and ended charity events.

Animal-rights groups said they had the votes to pass the measure.

“This means that greyhound decoupling is very likely dead for this session,” Carey Theil, director of Grey2K USA, the greyhound-advocacy group that spearheaded the effort this session, wrote in an email to supporters. “Greyhound decoupling will come back, and I am confident that it will eventually become law.”

He said the group would now focus on getting the injury-reporting bill passed by both chambers. Last year, the animal-rights activists succeeded in pushing through a long-sought requirement that tracks report race-related deaths. During the first six months of death reporting, 74 dogs died of race-related injuries — about one every three days.

The decoupling amendment pitted scrappy racetrack owners and jai-alai operators against tenacious dog lovers and animal-rights advocates.

For years, the injury-reporting provision had been held hostage by the racetrack owners who wanted to use it as a bargaining chip to get expanded gambling options.

While many of the greyhound tracks want to eliminate the requirement that they race dogs to keep their gambling permits, two of the most powerful players — the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Jacksonville Kennel Club — oppose it because they want to use the leverage of eliminating racing to help them bring slot machines to their tracks.

In the end, the plan to let dog tracks reduce their racing was seen as an expansion of gambling, so pari-mutuel operators and gaming opponents both opposed it.

That logic — the notion that halting racing expands gambling — makes sense only in the context of Florida’s perennial gambling fight, in which the state’s incumbent dog tracks, jai-alai frontons and horse tracks oppose anything that might give one of them an economic advantage.

“Dog racing is expensive, and if they don’t have the expense of racing dogs, they can use that money to expand their cards and slots, etc.,” explained Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee. “This whole industry is about making sure the other guys don’t get something you don’t have.”

As the popularity of racing has declined, tax revenue to the state has dropped and, according to a Spectrum Gaming report commissioned by the Legislature, the state spends $3.1 million more each year to regulate greyhound racing than it receives in revenues. The tracks now run races as a loss leader in order to operate the more-lucrative poker rooms.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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