Thursday, May 24, 2018
Politics

Bill to reduce Florida greyhound racing dies

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

The decision not to take up the proposal by the Senate Appropriations Committee means that Florida's 13 remaining greyhound tracks, including Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, will operate another year as they are 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) requiring 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 and animals rights activists had also hoped this would be the year they could get approval to pass the so-called "de-coupling" bill that would have allowed tracks to reduce their racing schedule and, ultimately, end dog racing.

Florida has more greyhound racing than any other state, but the racing schedule is still tethered to a 1997 law that allowed track owners to operate poker rooms only if they operate 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 race tracks, revised permits and ended charity events.

The bill's defeat was a blow to animal rights groups, which 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, said in an email to supporters. "Greyhound decoupling will come back, and I am confident that it will eventually become law.''

He said the group will now focus its efforts to get the injury reporting bill passed through both chambers. Last year, the animal rights activists succeeded in pushing through a long-sought requirement that tracks report race-related deaths. In the first six months injuries were reported, 74 dogs died from race-related injuries — a rate of about one every three days.

The de-coupling amendment pitted scrappy race-track 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 race track 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 —Palm Beach Kennel Club and 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 both pari-mutuel operators and gaming opponents 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, the Senate Gaming Committee chairman. "This whole industry is about making sure the other guys don't get something you don't have."

As the popularity of racing 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.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas

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