Gaming Committee Hears Pleas as Big Decisions Loom
Around the State
Slot machines in Palm Beach County, money for gambling-addiction treatment and getting rid of greyhound racing were on the wish lists of nearly 100 people who showed up at a Senate Gaming Committee meeting Wednesday in South Florida.
The horse aficionados, including breeders and trainers, asked lawmakers to keep in mind the industry's century-old presence and economic impact on Florida as the Legislature decides the future of gambling in the state.
Dozens of people also pleaded with the panel to protect the state's horse breeding and racing industry during the first of four on-the-road hearings that the committee will hold as lawmakers wrangle with the future of Florida's gambling footprint, with everything from Las Vegas-style casinos to senior arcades on the table.
"This industry creates possibilities for people," said Calder Casino and Race Course President Austin Miller. "The opportunities you gave our communities have been paid back in spades and there is so much more to come. … Please consider the vital contributions our existing operators make to the economy."
Jockey Juan Leyva expressed fear that lawmakers would consider "decoupling" horse racing while allowing pari-mutuels to continue operating slot machines and card rooms. Tracks need to have racing permits to offer card rooms. Tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties can also have slots. Each of the state's 400 jockeys has a support staff of up to four additional workers, Leyva said.
"All of us who work in racing are very passionate about our jobs. We have to be. It's very dangerous … but we all take on that work willingly and none of us want to see the sport decline," Leyva said.
But others who attended the hearing in the Broward County city of Coconut Creek spoke in favor of "destination resorts" that would house casino gambling, convention space, hotels, restaurants and shopping all under one roof.
Gaile Dvoretz said she lives across the street from Isle Casino Racing in Pompano Park. She said businesses surrounding the horse track, which also has slots, are thriving.
"Bring in destination casinos. Get rid of the horse tracks," Dvoretz said. "We want the gambling here. We want it done right. Your job is to use common sense and do it right."
The committee also heard from gambling addicts and counselors who said that whatever lawmakers decide, they need to set aside funds for treatment because insurance does not usually cover gambling treatment and compulsive gamblers are usually broke by the time they seek help.
"You don't open a ski resort on the assumption that nobody's going to be hurt. That's just silly. The cost of doing business as a ski resort is you recognize there's going to be broken legs," said Robert Hunter, speaking on behalf of Recovery Road, an addiction treatment center in Palm Beach Gardens. "You don't close the ski slope. You fund the ski patrol."
And numerous dog lovers made impassioned pleas for Florida, one of seven states that still allow greyhound racing, to end the practice, or at a minimum to make tracks report injuries to the state, something only Florida and Alabama do not require.
"I'm here fighting for the greyhounds," said Hallandale Beach Commissioner Michelle Lazaro, who has a greyhound track in her district.
She said she hears the dogs being transported as they travel down her street.
"I'm telling you it's a cry for help and a bark of frustration," Lazaro said. "No grass under their feet. No sunshine. No dog treats. No fresh air. No petting. No affection at all. Broken bones, heart attacks, electrocution are only some of the horrific ends for them. … It's time for us to move away from this archaic thinking, get into the 21st century."
A handful of seniors also showed up to protest the shutdown of adult amusement centers as part of the Legislature's crackdown on Internet cafes earlier this year.
Stella Kerrigan, 94, said she visited the senior arcade near her Broward County home "to have somewhere to go and have fun" but not to gamble.
"I don't want to gamble. Gambling is when you go to the horse races or the dog races or to the big casinos. This is just fun and meeting people and enjoying yourself and making friends," she said.
The Senate Gaming Committee will meet again next Wednesday at 3 p.m. at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland.