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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Senate Calls Seminole Gambling Negotiations 'Productive' As Pari-Mutuel Decoupling Measure Advances

Erich Martin

A Senate panel has advanced measures that would create a new gambling commission and would decouple most pari-mutuel gambling.

Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson says negotiations with the Seminole Indian Tribe have been “productive” — hinting at the chance the state could hammer out a new gambling agreement with the tribe that would likely allow Seminole casinos to offer more kinds of gambling and would lead to the state getting to collect money from the tribe again.

But this isn’t the first time those negotiations have started over the past several sessions and there’s no guarantee they’ll be a success. In the meantime, the Senate is moving forward with a handful of other gambling moves. A Senate panel has advanced measures that would create a new gambling commission and would decouple most pari-mutuel gambling.

If you’ve been following Florida gambling discussions over the past decade or so “decoupling” is a term you’re likely familiar with. If not, here’s a quick explanation: Decoupling is the idea of allowing pari-mutuels like horse tracks and jai alai frontons to offer slot machines and card games without requiring them to hold a certain number of live events like horse races each year. Lawmakers have been discussing the move for several years, but have gotten pushback from various members of the industry.

Lonny Powell is CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association. He says thoroughbred horse racing is linked to positive economic impacts across the state.

“It’s important to note that none of these positive impacts, economically and or quality of life would be achieved, nor would there be the need for the critical market of our highly recognized Florida horses, our farms and our thoroughbred simulcast racing signals if live thoroughbred racing was not a requirement,” Powell says.

The Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association has long taken a strong stand against decoupling efforts. Powell says the move could put 23,000 jobs and a thriving part of the state’s agriculture industry — namely horse breeding — at risk. But this year, he supports the move. That’s because a bill supported by Sen. Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast) carves out thoroughbred horse races. Under his measure pari-mutuels that have traditionally held thoroughbred horse races must continue to do so if they want to operate slot machines and card rooms. Pari-mutuels that host other events such as harness racing, quarter horse racing and jai alai can decouple. Hutson says the idea came from thoroughbred tracks.

"That was something that the permit holders wanted and came to us and said ‘please don’t do it to us,' even though we thought it didn’t matter to them. Whereas the harness permit holders did not have that same vibe that the thoroughbreds did," Hutson says. "They were 50/50 on whether they wanted to be decoupled or not."

But Lauren Jackson with the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association says thoroughbred racing isn't the only kind of horse racing that's connected to a significant industry.

She says while harness racing is less known — there’s just one harness-racing track in Florida — decoupling could still mean thousands of Florida families could lose their livelihood.

“Approximately 5,000 people are directly employed in the state of Florida between standardbred breeding and racing. This includes drivers, owners, breeders and trainings," Jackson says.

She says thousands more people and business, like blacksmiths and groomers, are indirectly supported by harness racing.

Hutson’s measure doesn’t prevent live events, but it takes away a requirement that a track that has a harness racing permit must hold races in order to keep operating its slot machines and card rooms. The concern from people like Jackson is that many tracks would decide not to continue live events. Slot machines and cardrooms are more lucrative. Opponents to the measure say tracks were allowed to begin offering other kinds of gambling as a way to support racing.

Mike Rogers operates Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach and is president of the Stronach Group’s racing division. The Stronach group operates several thoroughbred tracks throughout the country.

“Horsemen and breeders are very dependent on slot revenues for thoroughbred racing purposes," Rogers says. "The impact of decoupling would be significant to the pari-mutuel and casino profits. We therefore believe there should be a price for decoupling as permit holders were granted cards and slots originally to help grow and protect live pari-mutuel racing and maximize the economic impact on the state’s breeding and racing infrastructure.”

Rogers says Hutson’s bill puts Gulfstream Park on an uneven playing field.

“By no longer having the responsibility to operate a pari-mutuel facility, decoupled permit holders will have vastly different cost structures compared to the thoroughbred permit holders that are not allowed to decouple," Rogers says. "This will result in an unfair competitive advantage as their resources and cashflow will now be redirected to attract customers in the form of marketing player rewards, upgrade to infrastructure and land redevelopment.”

Rogers says he doesn’t want thoroughbred tracks to decouple. But he says he’d like to see other pari-mutuels that choose to decouple pay into a purse that could be used to support live racing. Others have suggested a way to even the playing field could be to offer tax breaks to tracks that do not decouple. The bills have a tough road ahead. Measures that can be seen as a gambling expansion have faced heavy criticism in the House in the past several years.

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