State Politics

As gaming bill dies, Florida lawmakers agree to crack down on dog racing

Greyhounds race at Flagler Dog Track in March 2008.
Greyhounds race at Flagler Dog Track in March 2008. Miami Herald file photo

As a consolation to the defeated gambling bill this session, the Florida House attempted to revive two other special-interest priorities Friday — defining fantasy sports as a game of skill and requiring greyhound tracks to report their dogs’ injuries.

The dog advocates won, but attempts to shield companies like DraftKings and FanDuel from being tarred by the courts as illegal gambling operations failed.

Bills to ratify the gaming compact between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe and an accompanying bill to expand slot machines outside of South Florida were declared dead by Senate leaders earlier this week. As a result, the House was forced to abandon its efforts on Friday — the last day House rules allow a bill to come to the floor for the first time before session adjourns March 11.

“You have to have two willing partners to get something done, and we’ve brought it as far as we can bring it,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who said the House wanted to revive the gaming deal by waiting “until there was a deal struck and there wasn’t.”

After the gaming bill was declared dead, supporters of the measure pushed to get greyhound injury reporting through, said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, the sponsor of the amendment to HB 1167. Under the amendment, any injury to a racing greyhound in Florida must be reported to the Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering within seven days.

It was a concession to animal rights advocates, who have sought a change to the law for four years. The legislation has passed the Senate unanimously in the last two years but has been entangled in pari-mutuel industry politics in the House.

Unlike other states, Florida’s greyhound industry does not have to report when dogs are injured as a result of racing or training. The measure imposes fines on track veterinarians who fail to report race-related injuries and follows a similar bill passed in 2013 that requires tracks to report greyhound deaths.

The fantasy sports industry also sought to use the death of the gaming bill to resurrect its goal to allow its games to be defined as games of skill, not games of chance. Several states, including Texas, New York and Georgia, have issued opinions that daily fantasy sports games are forms of gambling that may be prohibited in their states. Nevada and a half-dozen other states ban people from participating in the games.

But Florida’s laws have been hard to interpret. In an amendment to HB 1167, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, proposed regulating the games operated by companies like DraftKings and FanDuel as games of skill.

But the bigger gambling debate got in the way. The House’s lead negotiator on the state’s gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, warned the House that allowing Gaetz’s legislation to become law could have broad effects on the existing 20-year compact the tribe has with the state, which allows their casinos to operate any games authorized by state law.

Diaz said if the courts were to rule that daily fantasy sports games are a form of gambling, the tribe would be able to offer new online gambling options, which are now prohibited in Florida, without having to share any revenues with the state.

“The Seminoles would be able to do online gaming such as blackjack and poker,” Diaz said. “There would be Internet gaming in Florida.”

Gaetz announced he was pulling his proposal before a vote and later explained that he was convinced there was enough uncertainty about the effect on the compact that his proposal was a “risk we should not take.”

Meanwhile, animal rights advocates hailed the dog racing regulation as “the first significant piece of greyhound protection legislation to ever pass the Florida legislature,” said Carey M. Theil, executive director of GREY2K USA Worldwide, which advocates for an end to dog racing.

Industry reports show that 79 greyhounds died in 2013, 113 in 2014 and 93 in 2015 — an average of one every three days — due to race-related causes, but Moskowitz argued that the current law is loaded with loopholes.

If a greyhound dies on the racetrack, it has to be reported, but if the death occurs outside the track and the dog is euthanized somewhere else, it doesn’t have to be reported as a race-related death, he said.

He suggested that dog trainers and owners don’t want to report the deaths because if the reporting shows there are hundreds more deaths than previously known, it might increase the public opposition to racing.

The Florida Greyhound Association, which represents owners, trainers and breeders, has opposed injury reporting without passing additional requirements to keep dogs safe, suggesting that instead it is a public relations effort by the animal activists aimed to end dog racing. The organization has repeatedly pushed for a three-pronged plan to require tracks to end practices that cause most dog injuries -- poorly maintained track surfaces, electrocution caused by non-insulated electrical lines carrying the "lure," and lures that injure dogs.

"If they really wanted to help dogs, they'd try to prevent injuries,'' said Ramon Maury, lobbyist for the greyhound association. "But they don't care about dogs. They want to use the strategy against us."

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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