04/29/2004 11:00PM

Legislative session ends with no action

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Florida's 2004 legislative session ended Friday evening and, barring last-minute surprises, there will be no Thoroughbred industry legislation added to the state statutes. Florida politics ordinarily dictates that if one wants to get parimutuel legislation through the Legislature and signed by the governor, it has to be legislation that is non-controversial and has the support of all elements in the industry.

Magna Entertainment Corp., owners of Gulfstream Park, lobbied long and hard, unsuccessfully, for such items as approval to build a racetrack in Ocala and the right to operate Gulfstream as an intertrack wagering facility when not operating a live meet. Magna's attempts to pass the legislation was opposed by lobbyists for Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Calder Race Course, as well as Tampa Bay Downs and the state's 14 dog tracks. The only entity not opposing the Magna wish list of legislation was the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association.

Hialeah was seeking a statute to protect its parimutuel permit, which was in danger of being in default because the track has been closed since 2001. All appeared to going smoothly for Hialeah's bill when an unexpected amendment was attached. This amendment dealt with the right of the dormant Key West dog track to operate as an intertrack wagering outlet without having to operate a live meeting. This amendment turned controversial when a possible conflict of interest was exposed, and as a result the Hialeah bill was withdrawn.

Hialeah has a pending court challenge regarding the constitutionality of legislation governing its permit.

Even if Hialeah were to be allowed to run a race meet, much work would have to be done first. Hialeah's 80-year-old grandstand is no longer serviceable, and would have to be leveled or replaced before any future meet could be held. The Hialeah barns also are in disrepair. When asked how much it might take to get Hialeah up and running, a member of Hialeah management estimated that it would take $10 million to $15 million, or maybe more.

Floridians for a Level Playing Field, a consortium of all Dade and Broward county parimutuel operations - racetracks, dog tracks, jai alai - except Hialeah, has had a constitutional amendment before the Florida Supreme Court since last summer in an attempt to gain slots or video lottery terminals. The amendment calls for a statewide vote to permit voters in Dade and Broward counties to hold an additional referendum that would allow slots or VLT's in the counties' existing parimutuel facilities.

Two years ago, when a similar amendment was before the Florida Supreme Court, the justices, on a 4-3 vote, determined that the language of amendment did not pass constitutional muster. While the language for the current amendment has been carefully vetted, there is still some uncertainty that it will be acceptable to the court. Another hurdle it must overcome is the opposition of Gov. Jeb Bush to more gambling in the state.

No legislation regarding slots or VLT's was introduced during this session, which places the matter in the court's hands.

Said attorney David Romanik, who represented Hialeah during the '04 legislative session: "The justices in matters like this prefer to follow the Lgislature. If the Legislature had acted upon the slot/VLT issue, it might have made the court's deliberations moot. Now, the court will have to vet the amendment."