FILE - Wilton Simpson

Florida state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill

(The Center Square) – It took the Florida Senate Regulated Industries Committee a half-hour Monday to unanimously approve three bills that would create a state gaming commission and “decouple” pari-mutuels from offering live jai-alai, harness and quarter-horse racing to operate card rooms.

The bills, outlined in an April 7 memo by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, now rocket-dockets to a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee and – if approved – onto the chamber floor.

Senate Panel Bill 7076 would create a five-member, governor-appointed state Gaming Control Commission. SPB 7078 establishes public records exemptions for the commission and SPB 7080 would allow casinos to operate card games without running harness or quarter-horse races or jai-alai.

The bills don’t address sports gambling and come after two years of negotiations between state lawmakers and the Seminole Tribe of Florida has failed to produce a new gaming compact.

The Seminoles’ $350 million annual agreement with the state expired in May 2019. Lawmakers and the tribe have not found consensus on “banked” card games offered at many Florida pari-mutuel businesses.

The Seminoles successfully claimed in court the state’s failure to “shut down the illegal banked card games” violated the pact, negating its 2019 renewal. The tribe is demanding exclusive ability to offer blackjack.

Lawmakers negotiated tentative gaming pacts the last two years, including one in which the Seminoles’ seven casinos operate online sports betting “hubs” in exchange for resuming $650-to-$750 million annual payments to the state.

Chair Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, told the committee that DeSantis and Simpson have identified “a couple of issues we’d like to resolve and put to rest” in state gaming regulations and would “put the structure in place for when there is a compact.”

SPB 7080 originally “decoupled” thoroughbred horse racing as well as jai alai, harness and standardbred horse racing, but was restored via an amendment Monday.

Good thing, said Florida Thoroughbred Breeders & Owners Association (FTBOA) CEO/Executive Vice President Lonny Powell because raising, training and racing thoroughbred horses employs 233,000 Floridians and generates $2.7 billion in economic impacts in the state, “far greater than that of baseball spring training.”

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said the live-racing requirement, however, has fostered dubious quality in jai alai and non-thoroughbred horse racing.

“Many facilities are just going through the motions” to run card rooms and pari-mutuel gambling, he said, before adding, “Harness (racing) appears to be legitimate” and should not be “decoupled.”

“We did consider that,” Hutson said, noting pari-mutuel permit-holders wanted to “stay coupled with thoroughbreds. The harness permit-holders did not have the same vibe. They were 50-50.”

Florida Standardbred Breeders’ & Owners’ Association (FSBOA) representative Lauren Jackson asked the panel to “please consider the thousands of Floridians” who work in harness racing, noting Isle Casino at Pompano Park is the nation’s “winter capitol of harness racing” and Florida is home to seven training centers.

Eldorado Resorts, which owns Isle Casino, plans to redevelop the site and replace harness racing with pari-mutuel jai alai.

The FSBOA has “been in good-faith negotiations with the casino” to retain harness racing, Jackson said. “The timing of this legislation upset those talks,” she said

Mike Rogers, president of racing for The Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, said the bills create an uneven playing field.

“Decoupled permit-holders will have vastly different and unfair competitive advantages” over those that run horses, he said

“There should be a price for decoupling,” Rogers said, suggesting decoupled pari-mutuels “contribute to a common purse pool” to allow tracks “a full schedule of racing, including summer and fall, dominated by Florida horses.”