Legislation that would allow Florida card rooms to operate without the requirement that they also offer greyhound racing passed through the Florida House on Tuesday.
Supporters described it as a business-friendly bill that simply ends an unnecessary state mandate. At the same time, they said it stops artificially propping up the greyhound racing and breeding industry.
Opponents worried that decoupling greyhound racing from card rooms and slot machines would help make those businesses more profitable, and as a result lead to the expansion of gambling. The bill, HB 1145, passed on an 86-to-31 vote. A similar bill could be up for a vote in the Florida Senate before the end of the 2011 session.
“This bill does not in any way expand gambling,” said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, the bill’s sponsor. “Under this bill, greyhound permit holders will be allowed to determine as a business decision, and not by government mandate, the level of live racing that they will conduct at their facilities.”
The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, would allow tracks like the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track to cut back on the number of greyhound races they offer, or eliminate greyhound racing all together.
The House and Senate bills bring together an unlikely coalition – dog track operators who want to free themselves from the burdens of an increasingly unprofitable industry and animal rights organizations who believe dog racing is cruel. Kennel operators and greyhound breeders say the legislation will hurt their jobs, as well as the jobs of thousands of track workers.
Izzy Havenick, the vice president of Southwest Florida Enterprises, which owns the Bonita-based track, has said he would like to cut down the number of greyhound performances at his track. By law, every year Havenick has to offer about 400 performances – at least eight races per performance – to continue offering his card room at the track.
He’d like to cut back to 100 to 150 performances a year, Havenick said. The card room is a money-maker for Havenick, while the greyhound racing is not.
“We think it’s a good bill,” Havenick said. “We think it’s about time we’re allowed to determine what we do and how we run our business. Naples is statutorily required to run the most performances of any track in the state.”
In 1996, the state authorized card rooms at greyhound tracks. To continue their card rooms, every year the tracks are required to conduct at least 90 percent of the performances that they conducted the year they applied for their initial card room license.
However, over the last 10 years wagering on greyhound racing has taken a dive, dropping from $633,230,507 in 1999-2000 to $291,794,434 in 2009-10.
At the Bonita track, the 2009-10 handle was $25,608,477, down from $37,108,720 as recently as 2007-08.
“The big deal is it’s a losing proposition for the dog racing, so why force them to continue racing dogs which many people think is inhumane,” said Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who voted for the bill.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, called it an “expansion of gambling bill,” that simply converts racetracks into card room casinos. More gambling means more people dropping money on the games and not paying their bills, he said.
“At the heart, I have a real problem with expanding gambling,” Baxley said. “It’s not a good business plan for Florida. This is not a moral argument. You need to build on the strength of your people, not their weakness.”
Supporters argued that the bill doesn’t allow for card room expansions. It only allows for the contraction of a form of gambling.
Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, said it isn’t right for lawmakers who have concerns about pari-mutuels to make it harder on them by forcing them to run greyhounds.
“We need less dog racing, not more dog racing,” he said.
Along with Passidomo, representatives Matt Hudson, R-Naples, Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, and Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, who represents a portion of eastern Collier County, all voted for the bill.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, voted against it.
When the bill authorizing card rooms was passed in the mid-1990s, Caldwell said local communities had the final say. He believes that same opportunity should have been offered this time around as well.
“Each one of the counties should have had the decision,” Caldwell said. “I think they would have done it, but I think procedurally that’s the correct way to do it.”
_Connect with Ryan Mills at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan-mills/