State Politics
11:25 am
Sat September 7, 2013

Florida Gambling Laws Face Reform

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — Even as lawmakers wade into a major debate about the direction of gambling in Florida, regulators said Friday they will start rewriting rules that play a critical role in the operations of racetracks and jai-alai frontons.

Credit Jamie Adams / Wikimedia Commons

"In their current form, the laws regulating the industry are unclear and do not define many standards necessary to ensure the continued integrity of pari-mutuel wagering,'' the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation said in a news release. "The draft rules are designed to clarify terms and maintain traditional pari-mutuel standards."

The announcement came as state lawmakers are expected in 2014 to debate high-stakes gambling issues, such as a possible expansion of slot machines and allowing "destination resort" casinos in South Florida. The Senate Gaming Committee on Friday announced it will hold four workshops across the state in October and November to take public input about the issues.

Meanwhile, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering will hold the first in a series of rule-development workshops Oct. 16 in Fort Lauderdale. The issues expected to be addressed include performance and jockey requirements; general rules for tracks, races and jai alai; and qualifications of horses, according to the news release.

Regulators have faced repeated scrutiny after signing off on a series of controversial gambling practices that have further fractured the pari-mutuel industry. Several of the decisions are being challenged in court.

This year, an administrative law judge ruled that the department erred in granting a rodeo-style barrel racing permit, the first in the country, to a facility in Gretna, west of Tallahassee. The barrel races opened the door for a lucrative card room.

The department and Marc Dunbar, a lawyer for the facility who is also part-owner, signed a consent order allowing the Gretna facility to keep its permit by running "flag-drop" races that feature only two horses. DBPR also approved a "flag-drop" race for Gulfstream Park, another client of Dunbar's.

The agency also flipped its stance on quarter-horse permits based on a new interpretation that required zoning to be in place prior to permits being issued.

And regulators approved one-time races this year at Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park in Broward County that gave track operators the ability to offer year-round simulcast races.

Overall, the patched-together gambling laws give regulators too much leeway in interpreting the statutes, some critics argue.

A recent study for the Legislature by Spectrum Gaming Group called the state's gambling laws "convoluted" and said they led to agency decisions that allowed "what critics call an 'exploitation' of current gaming laws."