TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers are weighing two bills that could change the face of gambling in Florida.
The first would allow dog track owners to keep their cards and slot machines without having to run live dog races. The other would legalize Internet poker.
Both bills were approved by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday. The same bills have been introduced in the House, but have not been taken up.
The racetrack bill would remove one of the last vestiges of Florida's parimutuel tradition, allowing dog tracks to complete their conversion to either card rooms or slot machine venues as the popularity of dog racing declines. Florida is home to 16 greyhound tracks.
"The market has dictated already that this may be a dying industry, but I don't think it's dead," said Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, sponsor of the bill. "I do believe there should be some dog racing where the people want it, and it should be dictated by the people and not by government."
The committee also voted 10-2 to create an intrastate Internet poker network tied to the current 23 horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons. Proponents say that if the estimated 800,000 people who now play Internet poker play the intrastate games, it could generate as much as $50 million in additional tax revenue and protect consumers from unscrupulous operators.
"What we have here is a bill that is very carefully crafted," said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, sponsor of SB 812. He said the measure protects consumers by awarding contracts to three hub operators who have never offered illegal Internet poker in Florida. Florida's parimutuels could carve out a portion of the gambling profits and remit 10 percent of their gross revenue — between $10 million and $40 million — to the state.
"We're protecting Florida consumers from having their identity stolen, from having financial information stolen, from being easy prey from entities that operate offshore," Diaz de la Portilla said.
The measure passed with "no" votes from Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, and Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, who said they feared the measure goes too far to expand gambling.
Sach's bill, SB 1594, was more controversial as dog breeders, trainers and handlers warned that, if enacted, the bill would kill their industry.
"It's going to knock us out of business," said James O'Donnell, 82, a greyhound owner in Miami who has been racing dogs for 55 years.
Jack Cory, a lobbyist for the Florida Greyhound Association, warned that passage of the bill would result in 3,000 Florida families losing their small businesses or jobs. He also complained that the animal rights movement misinformed the committee about the treatment of dogs.
The bill removes the requirement enacted in 1996 that dog tracks operate live racing. Tampa Greyhound Track, which features Lucky's Card Room, could either continue the races or phase them out.
According to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the industry has seen a sharp decline in revenue and patrons. Between 2002 and 2010, the amount of money gambled on live dog racing fell 57 percent, Sachs said. Meanwhile, purses for live racing dropped 69 percent, and taxes and fees collected dropped 96 percent.