Senate advances new gaming legislation
Almost out of nowhere, decoupling is on the table once again.

horse racing
Proposed gaming laws are at odds with Florida horse breeders.

With or without an agreement with the Seminole Tribe, the Legislature is moving forward to establish a gaming framework in the state.

While talks with the Tribe are ongoing, the Senate has put forth legislation that would tie up other loose ends in the state’s gaming industry.

The Senate Committee on Regulated Industries heard three new gaming bills Monday. All three were approved by the committee.

Two of the bills would establish a gaming commission, and the third removes the live racing requirement for parimutel permit holders.

SPB 7076 would establish the Florida Gaming Control Commission within the Office of the Attorney General. The five-member committee would have law enforcement authority over gaming laws.

SB 7078 deals with public records to keep details of the Gaming Control Commission’s criminal investigations out of the public eye.

SB 7080 removes parts of a law governing parimutuel permit holders, including jai alai, harness, and quarter horse racing. Current Florida law requires a certain level of live racing or competition for parimutual wagering to take place.

Under the bill, decoupling would be allowed, so race tracks could still allow gaming like slot machines even if no live racing is taken place.

But some included in the decoupling aren’t happy.

Harness racing is included in the bill’s decoupling. The race track that holds the state’s sole harness racing permit could benefit from the option to decouple, but a representative from the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association said the people involved in raising, caring and racing the horses would be harmed.

“If the casino that holds this sole harness racing permit is allowed to decouple, the entire industry would be left with nowhere to go in the state. It would ultimately cost these families the only livelihood most of them have ever known. These families have been through a roller coaster of emotions on whether their way of life will continue and whether their industry will survive,” Lauren Jackson, a lobbyist representing the association.

Thoroughbred racing is specifically left out of the decoupling, which Committee Chair Travis Hutson, who presented the legislation, said was decided after consulting with the thoroughbred racing industry.

Stephen Screnci, President of the Florida Horseman’s Protective and Benevolence Association, which represents 6,000 members who are predominantly horse owners and some horse trainers, spoke at the meeting. Screnci said the group is in favor of the bill but the decoupling of other parimutel permit holders puts thoroughbred racing at a disadvantage.

“Currently we rely a great deal on the purse, and a portion of that purse comes from the slots revenue. Seeing any further decrease, I believe, will inevitably result in less race days, and a smaller industry as a whole, in Florida,” Screnci said.

Screnchi suggested a tax reduction for permit holders who chose not to decouple.

But after the meeting Hutson spoke about the issue.

“The thoroughbreds say they don’t want to decouple, and they’re going to stay coupled,” Hutson said. “Well, that’s a choice they’re making. So, if they want us to decouple them, we can easily decouple them, and they can continue to race. But if you hear their testimony, it’s almost like they want their cake and eat it too.”

Hutson said he expects companion legislation in the House to be unveiled this week in the Commerce Committee.

Hutson said the bills don’t require an agreement with the Seminole Tribe, which matters because the Legislature and two governors have still been unable to agree on a new deal with the Tribe since parts of a 2010 compact expired in 2015. Former Gov. Rick Scott worked out one revised compact in 2015, but the Legislature never ratified it. The Tribe has since stopped making payments to the state on a contract worth about $240 million per year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is still negotiating.

“As it stands today, the Governor is trying to finalize negotiations with all stakeholders,” Hutson said.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown is a capitol reporter for FloridaPolitics.com. Her background includes covering the West Virginia Legislature for a regular segment on WVVA-TV in Bluefield called Capitol Beat. Her reporting in southern West Virginia also included city issues, natural disasters, crime, human interest, and anchoring weekend newscasts. Haley is a Florida native. You can reach her at [email protected]



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