Florida racing facilities may see major changes to how they operate as part of Special Session legislation filed by Pinellas County Republican Rep. Chris Latvala.
The bill (HB 7A) would decouple casino gambling permits from dog racing tracks, jai alai frontons and harness, or Standardbred, racing tracks, meaning the facilities could operate card games without a live component. However, the legislation would maintain the live racing requirement for thoroughbred racing permit holders.
Under current law, if a casino wishes to operate card games, it must also run some live events like jai alai, Standardbred races, or other races.
“Greyhound racing in Florida no longer exists, so a lot of those facilities are now just card rooms,” Latvala said. “And so it just codifies that greyhound racing is no more, and then it allows those facilities to be open around the clock if they so desire.”
The legislation would also allow pari-mutuel permit holders to operate card rooms and slot machines 24/7 and increase the amount of designated player game tables they can have. Currently, they are limited to 18 hours during the week but can operate 24 hours on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Pari-mutuels would also be allowed to serve complimentary drinks around slot machines under the bill.
The bill also allows thoroughbred permit holders to conduct night racing after 7 p.m.
“We have a strong history in Florida with thoroughbreds — the Kentucky Derby winner is from Florida,” Latvala said. “Whether it’s Ocala, or the Tampa Bay area where I’m from, or South Florida, we have a rich horse racing industry. And so what we’re trying to do is strengthen it, and I think the bill that we’re proposing takes a step in that direction.”
But, the move to decouple certain racing facilities is not without contention.
Democratic Rep. Dan Daley has been vocal about decoupling potentially putting Florida’s quarter horse raising and harness racing community in jeopardy.
The legislation has also drawn 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.
“There are certainly some people that will be against decoupling, and that’s fine,” Latvala said. “There might be people on my side of the aisle that are going to vote against it just because it’s a gambling bill, which is fine too. But it’s a good faith bill.”
As far as the fiscal impact of the legislation, Latvala said he expects decoupling to potentially lead to a negative fiscal impact, but also anticipates a positive impact on the expansion of gaming operations.
“I think that decoupling would bring a negative fiscal impact, but then some of the other parts of the bill, of course, could bring forth a positive fiscal impact,” Latvala said. “I think it’s a wait-and-see thing.”
With gambling being such a thorny legal and political issue, legislative proposals to make major changes in the industry have repeatedly died in recent years. But the issue broke through this spring when Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe agreed on the Compact, the focal point of this year’s Special Session.