03/31/2017 12:40PM

Long row to hoe to pass Florida gambling bills

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Two gambling bills with repercussions for the racing industry are making their way separately through the Florida legislature, but the vast differences between the bills would likely require compromises from both sides, state racing lobbyists said on Friday, making the fate of gambling legislation uncertain.

The Florida Senate passed a bill on Thursday that would allow for a number of new casinos in the state, including at horse and dog tracks, while also allowing for some tracks to drop their parimutuel operations. Separately, the Florida House is scheduled to take up a bill next week that would largely leave the gambling landscape in the state unchanged while giving the Seminole Tribe the exclusive right to operate casinos outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

If the House passes its bill, the legislature plans to assign the bills to a conference committee, but the wide gulf between the bills does not bode well for a compromise, according to one racing official.

“The two are universes apart,” said Lonny Powell, the chief executive of the Florida Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, who lobbies on behalf of the organization. “There’s a large gap in there to find a compromise between the two. It’s a tough go even when bills are similar.”

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This is the second year in a row that the Florida legislature has attempted to remake the gambling landscape in the state, under intense pressure from gambling lobbyists. Last year, a bill similar to the one passed by the Senate on Thursday failed to pass, largely because of the huge number of carve-outs in the bill.

Florida lobbyists are insisting that any bill allowing for the expansion of casinos in the state also provide for subsidies for horse racing purses and breeder awards. The Senate bill would require any parimutuel operations that dropped their racing programs to contribute to a purse fund, as it did last year.

Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist for Gulfstream Park who also provides legal counsel to casino interests in the state, said that the Senate bill would provide significant benefits for Gulfstream, citing the legislatively mandated subsidies, which could total $30 million a year. Dunbar said that it is possible that the legislative bodies work out a compromise, sensing that gambling issues have far more urgency this year.

“The state has been apathetic on this for too long,” Dunbar said. “If they don’t get it done this session, they may get it done in a special session later this year. All my energy is on trying to get Gulfstream’s issues accomplished, and that is making racing as strong as it can be.”

Both bills do not include language that would prohibit account wagering in the state. An early version of the Senate bill included language that prohibited the practice, a provision that spurred racing lobbyists to press for language that would regulate account wagering so that the racing industry received specific shares of betting through such operations. Currently, account wagering is unregulated in the state, and its legality rests in a gray area.