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Senate Panel: Allow Dog Tracks With No Dogs

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- A divided Senate panel on Thursday narrowly approved a bill to let greyhound tracks keep their licenses without having to offer live racing, opening the door for them to become card rooms or other types of gambling venues.

Dog tracks back the bill saying they lose money by continuing to offer a dying sport just so they can keep their pari-mutuel license, which allows them to offer poker, the real money-maker - and may one day allow them to offer slots.

Greyhound lovers also are pushing the idea and have formed a strange alliance with the dog tracks in trying to eliminate the requirement for a certain number of live greyhound races per year in order to keep their license.

But in the middle of those two groups and strongly opposed to the bill are breeders and dog owners, who say they'll be put out of work by the measure. Other gambling interests are watching carefully from the wings, with concerns about what the dog tracks will become.

The bill (SB 382) passed the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on a 6-4 vote, it's only committee reference so far in the Senate. That would appear to put the proposal on a fast-track for the Senate floor.

A similar bill got serious consideration in the Legislature last year, but died amid late session wrangling over differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. On Thursday, the Senate bill was amended to conform it to this year's House bill, in hopes of avoiding the same fate.

Opponents of the bill say the tracks will take the first opportunity they have to close their aging track venues and move to new locations - within certain limits already in the law about the portability of the licenses - where they'll essentially become new betting parlors.

"We're looking at over 3,000 employees losing their jobs," said Jack Cory, a lobbyist for the breeders, who also warned that closing the tracks endangers dogs, for which enough adoptive families may not be able to be quickly found.

But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, and other supporters of the bill say most of the breeders and dog owners who race the greyhounds at Florida tracks don't even live in Florida and that there are adoption agencies ready to scoop up dogs - though Sachs acknowledged that suddenly out-of-work dogs is one of the problems with putting the industry out of business.

But Sachs also was able to preserve in her bill a provision aimed at lessening the impact of the change - by allowing a tax credit to remain on the books for dog tracks if they want to keep offering racing. The tax credits - which would only go to tracks that continue to have racing - could also be sold by the tracks rather than taken. That's an incentive that may encourage some tracks to continue some racing, at least for a bit, Sachs said, which would drag the end of the sport out over time.

"What we want to do with greyhound racing is not completely eliminate the sport, what we want to do is phase it out slowly," Sachs said. "To completely close the businesses, which this bill does not intend to do … there would be such a large number of unwanted, used dogs."

Sachs had to fight to keep the tax credit language in the bill. An opponent of the measure, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, tried to remove the provision, saying the state shouldn't be giving tax breaks to the tracks. Backers said it was a poison pill meant to disturb the odd, and fragile coalition of interests pushing the bill, and likely would have killed it and the amendment was defeated.

Dog racing has ended in a few other states, either by the action of voters or legislators, but greyhound tracks are an icon of an older Florida and their demise would be a bittersweet mark of changing times for the nostalgic. But in the day of Internet gambling, poker rooms, and Indian casinos, betting on the dogs isn't the draw it used to be.

"Let the business community look at … how the market is," Sachs said. "If they get a big crowd, they can go ahead and race the dogs.

"We have a dying business. We're not stopping the racing of dogs by those tracks who wish to race," Sachs said. "All we're doing is taking out of statute the requirement that they have to race."

"The News Service of Florida contributed to this report."

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