At the wire: Dog racing lives as bill to deregulate dies on final night of session

At the wire: Dog racing lives as bill to deregulate dies on final night of session

The dog owners won this one at the wire.

A piece of state legislation that would have hastened the decline of greyhound racing in Florida died in the waning hours of the Florida legislative session Saturday.

House Bill 1145 would have eliminated a state regulation requiring Florida’s dog tracks to hold a minimum number of greyhound races each year, allowing them to focus on their more profitable poker rooms. It passed by a wide margin in the House and the Senate with some changes.

But Jack Cory, chief lobbyist of the Florida Greyhound Association, which is made up of dog owners, breeders, and kennel operators opposed to the legislation, said the bill failed after track owners pushed for additional tax breaks and slot-like arcade games at the tracks as the House and Senate versions were being debated.

“The bill just basically died of its own weight,” Cory said. “When the slot machine issue came up, that’s what put the nail in the coffin.”

Cory said the bill would have put 8,000 greyhounds at risk and led to the loss of 3,000 jobs and $50 million in economic impact, but proponents of the bill — an unlikely grouping of track owners and animal rights activists — said it would have led to the end of an increasingly unpopular form of entertainment.

“I was in Tallahassee the last two months and I’m still recovering,” said Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2K USA, a nonprofit that aims to end dog racing for humane reasons and promote greyhound adoption.

“It’s tough,” Theil said of the bill’s demise. “It’s heartbreaking to lose on the final night of the session”

Theil said a victory with the bill would have dealt a significant blow to greyhound racing nationwide, as 13 of the 23 dog tracks in the country are in the “greyhound state,” as the Florida Greyhound Association refers to it on its website.

But the bill wouldn’t have totally eliminated greyhound racing in Florida.

If the bill had passed, the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track wanted to reduce the number of races held annually at the track from the more than 3,200 currently required by the state to as little as 800, Izzy Havenick, the vice president of the track owner Southwest Florida Enterprises, told the Daily News in April. Havenick was not available for comment on this story.

Other tracks would also have kept the racing, said John Weber, a dog owner who lives in Estero. Weber, who owns 14 dogs, went to Tallahassee to lobby against the bill.

Weber said some dog owners and breeders agree that too many races are being held at the tracks, but that they and the track owners have failed to negotiate a compromise above the lower race count some tracks have suggested.

Additionally, Weber said the bill failed to specify how many races would end up being held, making it difficult to plan for the effects of the bill, including how many dogs to breed.

“The bottom line is the tracks and the kennels have never been able to sit down and work it out amongst themselves,” Weber said.

Cory said the bill was a tax break for millionaire track owners, which would have to pay fewer taxes as the number of races dwindled.

“If the track owner doesn’t want to be in the business of live racing, be honest to the people of Naples and send your license back to Tallahassee,” Cory said.

However, that tax revenue has dwindled significantly, from $40.1 million in fiscal 2000 to $5.2 million in fiscal 2010, according to a committee report on the bill.

“This is an industry that is no longer viable,” Theil said, adding that similar pieces of legislation have been debated in other states and that his group will continue to fight for the elimination of greyhound racing.

“The mandate that these live tracks conduct racing has essentially become a state subsidy for a business that no one is interested in,” Theil said. “These tracks in Florida have become poker rooms that happen to have dogs running in circles.”

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