Florida lawmakers conceded Thursday they are abandoning plans to pass a massive gambling overhaul this session that would bring resort casinos to South Florida, but they will revive efforts to phase out greyhound racing.
"Even if comprehensive reform is not in the cards for this session, we need to keep trying to find a graceful transition away from greyhound racing,'' said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee.
Richter's surprise announcement to the full Senate came a day after House Speaker Will Weatherford said he thought it was "getting late" to find a resolution to the divisive gaming bill that pitted powerful sectors of the gaming industry against each other.
House and Senate leaders have intentionally stalled progress on their gaming bills at the request of the governor, who is negotiating an agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to renew the provisions of its gaming compact with the state that expires next year.
Once a compact is negotiated, the Legislature must ratify it and legislative leaders now say it's getting too late to address it this year.
As a consolation prize, Richter said that the Senate will convene its gaming committee next week to take up a bill by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, to require greyhound tracks to report the most serious racing dog injuries. Supporters hope to "decouple" dog racing from the opportunity for tracks to operate poker rooms and slot machines.
"Industry representatives concede today that it's a dying sport" and a gaming report commissioned by the House and Senate called the sport "loss leaders," Richter told the Senate.
Richter said he is hopeful the governor will negotiate a compact soon that will "significantly alter" the $234 million annual revenue sharing arrangement the tribe has with the state and the provisions that give the tribe the exclusive right to run blackjack and other banked card games at its casinos.
But both Senate President Don Gaetz and Weatherford said this week that time has run out for their ambitious plans to use the Seminole agreement as the foundation for them to rewrite the state's gambling laws and open the door to resort casinos in South Florida.
"You never say never, but we're running out of time,'' Gaetz said Thursday. "As a practical matter it will be very difficult for senators and representatives to properly vet a compact that drops on us next week."
That puts on hold the Senate bill drafted to address the inconsistencies in the state statutes, clean up the laws related to gambling, and open the door to two resort casinos, Richter said.
He said the proposal was a tough sell. "Even on our committee, reaching consensus on a 400-page gaming reform bill just is not in the cards," he said.
Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he supports Richter's decision to now turn the focus on passing a bill this session limited to dog racing. He said he has spoken with House leaders about phasing out the requirement that greyhound tracks race dogs in order to operate poker rooms and slot machines and hopes to push it through both chambers in the remaining three weeks of the legislative session.
"The taxpayers of Florida are functionally subsidizing races that almost nobody is watching,'' said Gaetz, whose son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Niceville, is one of the sponsors of the effort in the House.
Florida is home to 13 of the last remaining 21 greyhound tracks in the nation. But as attendance has declined and people have spent less money betting on dogs, state law requires them to operate the same number of races they were running as nearly two decades ago.
If the measure passes, it could bitterly divide the dog racing industry. On one side are track owners, such as the Palm Beach County Kennel Club, that want a comprehensive rewrite of the gambling laws so that they can better leverage their chances of getting legislators to approve slot machines at their tracks.
On the other side are track owners from Miami to Jacksonville, who are willing to accept reduced racing alone.
"We are supportive of a comprehensive solution to a gaming policy and not to do it in this way,'' said Brian Ballard, lobbyist for the Palm Beach Kennel Club and Resorts World Miami, which has plans to build a casino on property it owns in downtown Miami.
Isadore Havenick, whose family owns the dog tracks in Miami, Naples and the Magic City Casino, says the legislation is needed to restore market forces to a changing industry. "If the legislation were to pass, we would not end racing. We would reduce it,'' he said.
A spokeswoman with Derby Lane in St. Petersburg said they plan to keep offering racing.
"Even if there is decoupling we still plan on offering greyhound racing," said Vera Rasnake.
Said Cal Holland, president of the Tampa Bay Greyhound Association: "I think some of the tracks would de-couple and finish greyhound racing, and some might continue."
The decision to abandon a gaming overhaul this session makes one thing certain: Lawmakers will have another year to discuss the issue and collect millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry.
Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who is designated to be Senate president in November, promised to revive the bill next year.
"I look forward to being here next year and congratulating you on passing that gaming bill," he told Richter.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas. Times correspondent Don Jensen contributed to this report.