The calm in the lobbyist-packed committee room belied the intensity of the behind-the-scenes battle under way to end the House of Representatives’ resistance to gambling expansion.
Before the Finance and Tax Committee met, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli added a legislator to help pass the bill that opens the door to slot machines in Palm Beach and Lee counties, destination resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward, and the phasing out of greyhound racing across the state.
As the vote looked close, lobbyists quietly met in the corner of the meeting room with Rep. Hazelle Rogers, attempting to get the Lauderhill Democrat to end her opposition to the bill.
In the end, a last-minute switch by Republican Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne Beach to support the bill, and a decision by Rep. Frank Artiles to miss the vote, brought HB 1233 to victory.
The vote was 10-8 in favor of what could be the most expansive rewrite of Florida’s gaming laws in a decade, since voters authorized slot machines.
It opens the door to expanding slots at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Flagler Race Track in Naples, if agreed to by the Seminole Tribe in a legislatively approved compact. It requires injury reporting for dog tracks that continue to race. And it requires Miami-Dade and Broward to conduct a non-binding referendum or a vote of the county commission before the Legislature can approve destination resort casinos.
It was a dramatic turn for a chamber where gaming bills have gone to die in recent years. The bill is next expected to go to the full House, but it faces steep hurdles in the Senate, which is awaiting a vote on its version of gambling expansion — a plan that would also extend the compact with the Seminole Tribe for one year.
Most important for the author of the House bill, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, is the provision that “decouples” the requirement that greyhound tracks continue to operate a minimum number of races in order to offer the more lucrative poker rooms or slots casinos. The bill also requires tracks to report all dog injuries.
“On behalf of the thousands of racing greyhounds that are bred and live their lives to do nothing but run around a circle with no one watching, vote for this bill,” Young told her colleagues.
There are only 20 active dog tracks left in the U.S., and Florida is home to 12 of them. The industry runs about 4,000 races a year and state records show that a dog dies every three days because of racing-related injuries.
But by removing the racing mandate from greyhound tracks but not offering a similar benefit to horse tracks, the measure drew opposition from other racinos in South Florida.
“This is a very special interest bill,’’ said Donn Mitchell, chief administrative officer for the Isle of Capri, which owns Pompano Park Race Course and Casino. “Don’t legislatively pick winners and losers,’’ Mitchell said.
Rogers tried and failed to pass an amendment to the bill that would have removed the requirement for horse track and jai alai operations to continue live racing and games, and would have let them operate their slots permits alone.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, said Tuesday that he expects little progress on any gaming legislation this session until the Seminole compact is re-negotiated.
“Absent an agreement to extend the compact, I don’t see Senate taking up any of these bills piecemeal,” he said.
But Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, said that the biggest change in the House bill was the effort to phase out dog racing.
“This is a battle of morals 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.
Animal activists who want to end dog racing aren't taking any chances. Starting Tuesday, Grey2K USA launched an aggressive email and phoning campaign urging their supporters to appeal to lawmakers to pass the bill.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas