The House Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would decouple casino gambling permits not just from dog racing tracks that are out of business but from jai alai frontons and harness racing tracks as well.
That prospect on Wednesday put Florida’s quarter horse raising and harness racing community in jeopardy, Democratic Rep. Dan Daley warned.
It also drew strong opposition from the state’s larger, but potentially disadvantaged, thoroughbred raising and racing community, which would see its card and slot rooms remain coupled to pari-mutuel operations.
PCB 21-05, introduced by Republican Rep. Chris Latvala, is one of three gaming-related proposed committee bills introduced Wednesday in the Commerce Committee. Chair Rep. Blaise Ingoglia advised they were being floated only as just-in-case measures, should the Legislature take up gambling in this Session.
Another bill, PCB 21-03, would create a Florida Gaming Control Commission and give it broad oversight and enforcement authority over Florida gaming. A third bill, PCB 21-04, would exempt some of the commission’s records from public records. Those two bills flew through the Commerce Committee with little discussion and no opposition.
“This may not and probably will not be the final disposition of the bills. The language of the bills is probably going to change. This is just a vehicle so we can keep the gaming issue alive as we approach the end of Session,” said Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican.
PCB 21-05 drew heated debate.
It deals with the aftermath of Florida voter approval of a greyhound racing ban in 2018. Those dog tracks are closed or closing, but some still have game rooms. But Florida law says those game rooms must be coupled with pari-mutuel operations, and the racing is gone. The bill would decouple greyhound track companies’ casinos from the race tracks.
Yet the bill extends the same decoupling to jai alai frontons, which nearly are gone in Florida, and to harness racing tracks, which supports the quarter horse community. There is only one harness track left in Florida, and the bill presumes it soon will be out of business like the dog tracks.
Daley of Coral Springs, the son of a Standardbred horse breeder, strongly objected to that prospect.
He said he thinks the bill included decoupling quarter horse racing so that the Las Vegas-based owners of Isle Casino Pompano harness racing track in Pompano Beach could shut down that track, knowing they could continue a lucrative casino operation there.
“I hope that we will reconsider decoupling and destroying a Florida industry for the benefit of a Nevada gaming company,” Daley said. “Just the threat of decoupling has led to a breakdown of good-faith negotiations between the operator and the horsemen.”
Daley also expressed worry that the decoupling could lead to an expansion of gambling, triggering a statewide referendum risking all of Florida’s gaming operations.
Thoroughbred interests were equally dismayed Wednesday at the prospect that they would be the only ones with casinos still coupled to racing if the bill becomes law as-is.
Unfair casino competition the bill might create could cripple Florida’s thoroughbred industry, which currently is top-three nationally for breeding and top-four for racing, said Lonny Powell, President of the Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association.
“While I know House Bill PCB 21-05 was well-intended, the consequences of creating an uneven playing field among slot permit holders would be devastating to the Florida thoroughbred industry,” said Mike Rogers, President of the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino in Hallandale Beach.
Nonetheless, with pledges from Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, that the concerns would be worked out, the bill was approved overwhelmingly.