02/09/2016 3:46PM

Florida decoupling debate postponed

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The fate of complex gambling legislation in Florida involving a compact between the state and the Seminole Indian Tribe remained unclear as one of two state legislative committees postponed debate on the issue Tuesday.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee postponed debate on the compact and proposed legislation that would ratify the deal until next week. Earlier that day, the House Regulatory Affairs Committee entertained some debate and public comment on a proposed House version of the bill, but that legislation differs from the Senate proposal, and there are stark differences of opinions between the two legislative bodies on gambling as a whole.

The bill is being closely watched by the state’s Thoroughbred industry because of a controversial proposal that would allow some parimutuel facilities to retain their licenses to operate casino-type games while shuttering their racing operations. The House bill would allow greyhound and harness tracks in South Florida to “decouple,” as the issue is known, while directing money from a tax break on slot machines at parimutuel tracks to a purse fund for Thoroughbred horses.

Thoroughbred interests in the state are aggressively fighting any proposal to allow decoupling. While Gulfstream Park has declared that it has no intention of shuttering its racing operation, Thoroughbred horsemen and breeders have said that they are concerned that any allowance for decoupling at parimutuel tracks will threaten the viability of the Thoroughbred industry.

The House committee did not discuss decoupling specifically, but three breeders asked to speak before the panel to voice their opposition to the concept.

Lynne Boutte, who said she operated a small Thoroughbred breeding farm in Marion County, said that passing legislation allowing for decoupling would jeopardize her family farm and the jobs connected to raising Thoroughbreds. She said that the decoupling issue was not germane to the legislation, which would primarily seek to validate a compact negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe late last year. Under the compact, the Seminoles would be allowed to expand the gambling offerings at their casinos while making $3 billion in payments to the state over the next seven years.

“We have been caught in a web of politics,” Boutte said. “We are a lifestyle, we are a livelihood. … I ask you to draw a line through the issue of decoupling.”

Decoupling is being pushed by greyhound and harness tracks that want to retain their existing gambling operations but close their unprofitable racing operations.

Rep. Halsey Breshears, a Republican from Monticello who is a member of the committee, told the breeders that he sympathized with their argument, but he also said he would support decoupling on the premise that the parimutuel industry has not done enough to market its own product.

“There are lots of people in this assembly and this chamber who are for [agriculture] but are not from [agriculture],” said Breshears, noting his agricultural business interests. “But in terms of your business, you need to continue to look for ways to change your business and change [how you market]. Because that is what has happened here. You have lost your customers.”

The postponement by the Senate committee likely means that more negotiations will take place on the legislation in the next several days. The legislature is currently at the halfway point of its 60-day legislative session.