The effort to reduce greyhound racing in Florida hit the skids Tuesday as the sponsor of the amendment was forced to withdraw it after infighting within the industry made it impossible for her to win the votes.
Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, withdrew the measure as worries about election year politics, the looming uncertainty of a gaming compact, and infighting between the bitterly competitive gaming industry overshadowed the debate.
"It was a meltdown,'' said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Tampa, after the meeting.
The Senate Gaming Committee voted unanimously to require dog tracks to report injuries for the first time and passed SB 742 by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood. The bill imposes fines on track veterinarians who fail to report race-related injuries and follows a similar bill passed last year that requires tracks to report greyhound deaths. In the first 9 months, 74 greyhound deaths were reported – more than one every three days.
Sachs wanted to expand the injury reporting bill by adding an amendment that would have allowed dog tracks -- for the first time in Florida history -- to operate their poker rooms and slot machines without live racing. Sachs has supported a similar bill for the past four years and it is vigorously backed by animal rights activists, dozens of whom crowded the committee meeting room for the hearing.
With 13 active greyhound tracks, Florida has more greyhound racing than any state in the nation but the racing schedule is still tethered to an outdated 1997 law. The law requires that in order for track owners to operate poker rooms, they must run at least 90 percent of the number of races that were running 17 years ago.
Since then, the popularity of racing has declined and tax revenues have dropped. According to a Spectrum Gaming report commissioned by the Legislature, the state now spends $3.1 million more each year to regulate greyhound racing than it receives in revenues.
Sachs’ proposal would not have ended greyhound racing, but would have made it optional.
“If a greyhound track wants to race – if it’s profitable for their business model – they should be allowed to race,’’ said Sachs. “If it’s not, they should not be required to race because of a state mandate.”
But Lee, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, each said they opposed Sachs’ amendment because they believed it unfairly helped some race tracks obtain an advantage over others.
Margolis feared that the proposed language would open the door to another casino in Miami by allowing dormant racing permits to be revived.
While many of the greyhound tracks want to eliminate the requirement that they race dogs keep their gambling permits, one of the most powerful players -- Palm Beach Kennel Club – opposes it because it fears it will lose the leverage it needs to help bring slot machines to its track.
“We prefer a comprehensive solution,’’ said Brian Ballard, lobbyist for the Palm Beach County Kennel Club.
Lee said he opposed the measure because the politically powerful dog tracks were pushing for the so-called “de-coupling” not because they were focused on the humane treatment of animals, but because they were losing money by racing them. The industry has contributed more than $18 million to legislative campaigns in the last 9 years.
Prompted by Lee’s questioning, track lobbyists told the committee that they did not consider dog racing inhumane but still wanted to phase out live racing.
“The dog racing world has changed. It is not as popular as it used to be,” said Ron Book, lobbyist for the Naples-Fort Myers race track, which is required to run 14,000 races a year.
Like most of the industry, the track runs its races as a loss leader in order to operate the more lucrative poker rooms, Book said.
Lee told the animal advocates in the audience they were "being used" by the profiteers in the racing industry to pass a bill being pushed for economic, not humane, reasons.
“These folks don’t care about your animals. They care about their profits,’’ he said. “Some of these tracks are making money off your dogs and some of them aren’t.”
Sachs' effort came with some subtle but high-level support. As the committee debated her amendment, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, arrived in the room and pulled Latvala and Rules Chairman John Thrasher aside before Sachs withdrew her amendment. By avoiding a vote that would have killed it, the measure remains alive.
Gaetz’s son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, a House sponsor, sat in the audience as did Gaetz's wife, Vicky, an animal lover.
Lee said the transparent attempt by some race track owners to convert greyhound permits to other forms of gaming forces legislators to face a tough question.
“If we believe so much in the humane treatment of animals, why don’t we just recognize that this industry is dead?,’’ he asked. “Its day has come and gone, and it’s time to revoke the permits for the dog tracks that exist in this state and re-issue permits on a competitive basis for some new form of gaming that doesn’t involve the inhumane treatment of animals.”
Sachs said she is going to rework her proposal and return with it in the remaining weeks of the session.