Agency says gaming laws are ‘unclear,’ calls for rewrite

After years of holding together a patchwork of gambling industry regulations, the Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering announced Friday that it is prepared to rewrite the rules regulating Florida’s multi-billion dollar parimutuel industry.

“In their current form, the laws regulating the industry are unclear and do not define many standards necessary to ensure the continued integrity of pari-mutuel wagering,’’ the division said in a press release announcing the first in a series of hearings for the rule-making process. “The draft rules are designed to clarify terms and maintain traditional pari-mutuel standards.”

The initiative is a rare acknowledgement by a state agency that the laws governing horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons are unclear and out of date and unclear. In the last decade, the state has spent thousands of dollars defending the statutes despite changes in gaming technology and only asked the Legislature for more authority to update the regulations.

However, the agency’s effort faces uncertain legal precedence and, ultimately, may serve to force the Legislature’s hand. Because of the bitter feuds within the state’s parimutuel industry, nearly every significant rule change approved by state regulators has been met with a legal challenge. In many cases, the court has overturned attempts by the division to clarify the law or offer new interpretation to existing law. Despite the setbacks, the Legislature has refrained from updating the law.

As the Herald/Times first reported, a series of rulings from the Division of Parimutuel Wagering in the last year have spawned dozens of lawsuits. Regulators have allowed “flag-drop” and barrel races to be considered a parimutuel sport, permitted slot operators to run electronic roulette and craps games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, allowed a dormant jai alai permit to be used to expand the number of slot machines at Magic City Casino, and allowed Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream racetrack in Hallandale Beach to run a one-time race in June so they could offer thoroughbred races via simulcast year-round.

Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association which won a lawsuit against the agency when it designated barrel racing as a parimutuel sport, said Friday he was surprised at the division’s acknowledgement that the laws governing the industry are unclear “but it’s also very accurate,’’ he said.

If the agency fails in its efforts to clarify what it considers unclear law, it could tee up the task for legislators, who have also signaled they are poised to review the state’s gaming laws.

The Senate Gaming Committee announced plans on Friday to conduct a series of four town-hall style hearings around the state to discuss the future of gambling in Florida and find ways to clarify the law and eliminate loopholes. The first hearing: Oct. 23 in Coconut Creek.

The first rule workshop will be held Oct. 16 in Fort Lauderdale. A draft of the rule indicates that the division is prepared to outlaw “flag drops” but allow for an alternative to the traditional quarter horse racing and impose new rules on jockeys. It indicates it will prohibit jai alai games played with only two players and will impose rules for standards of play.

The Legislature is also expected in October to receive a $400,000 report it commissioned from the Spectrum Gaming Group on the economic role of the gaming industry in Florida.