Two measures changing the rules of the game for gambling interests in the state passed the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday, potentially kicking off a new round of gambling fights in this year's session.
It's not clear whether the odds are in favor of either bill; Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, was largely ambivalent about both when asked about them Wednesday, and neither bill's House companion has been scheduled for a hearing yet.
The most fiercely contested of the two bills would remove the requirement that greyhound tracks actually offer live dog races in order to operate a card room. That bill (SB 1594) cleared the panel on a 7-5 vote.
Sen. Maria Sachs, the Delray Beach Democrat who sponsored the measure, said greyhound racing was "a dying industry in this state," and track operators had a better chance at staying in business if they could provide card games while holding fewer races -- or none at all. Sachs also said that dogs were in some cases being treated more poorly as revenues drop off for the races -- and the dogs become less central to the business.
"These dogs are running all the time -- all the time -- in order for the track to maintain a profitable card room," she said.
The bill was opposed by a hodge-podge coalition of gambling opponents and supporters of dog breeders and owners, though critics largely focused on how the changes would affect linked industries.
"I think were changing rules midstream, and its going to hurt a lot of people," said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera.
Jack Cory, a lobbyist for the Florida Greyhound Association, said the bill would prompt track operators to get rid of dog races entirely -- gutting the $50 million-a-year industry and shutting down hundreds of dog breeders and owners.
"If this bill were to reduce it or eliminate (the racing requirement), you would have a very, very difficult situation for the 3,000 Florida families and the greyhounds," Cory said.
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, said the changes expanded the greyhound licenses beyond their original intent.
"The dogs are what brought the license," he said. Nothing else."
The committee also approved a measure (SB 812) allowing intrastate Internet gambling on a 10-2 vote. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said many Floridians are already using the Internet to gamble; legalizing the games would merely make them safer and allow the state to draw in tax dollars from them.
"Were protecting consumers," he said. "Were generating revenue for the state of Florida from an activity that is currently taking place."
The poker site and player would both have to be located in Florida.
Sen. Jim Norman, a Tampa Republican who was one of the two votes against the measure, said after the meeting that he believed legalizing the games might encourage more people to play.
"I'm not convinced that there's not an expansion of that activity," he said after the meeting.
But Diaz de la Portilla said the days of considering Florida a state where gambling is generally illegal might be fading away.
"That statement," he said, "has been swallowed up by the exceptions."