As the Legislature continues debating a new Seminole Compact, the issue of decoupling has once again moved to the forefront.
Publicly, one of the chief opponents of decoupling — which removes live race requirements for facilities to host slots and card rooms at pari-mutuels — is the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders & Owners Association (FTBOA). However, in the backrooms of Tallahassee, the FTBOA and its lobbyists appear to be attempting to pull one over on well-intentioned legislators and, in the process, creating a secret loophole for the special treatment of a little-known pari-mutuel permit it owns in Marion County.
For many in the Legislature, it is politically expedient to turn the Compact into an opportunity to stop any new gaming in Florida. One of the primary ways to achieve this is by legislatively prohibiting the transfer or relocation of pari-mutuel permits, as well as revoke all dormant pari-mutuel permits. This is precisely what the actions of the FTBOA seek to influence.
On the surface, legislation in both chambers appears to close these doors to new casinos. Debating the House bill Feb. 9, Winter Park Republican Rep. Mike Miller astutely questioned a provision tucked deep in the massive 102-page draft law. Although staff analysis of the bill clearly states ALL dormant permits will be revoked, Miller noted an ambiguous exception, which legislative staff could not answer at the time.
Apparently, Miller stumbled on a placeholder for a sweetheart deal providing special treatment for an obscure pari-mutuel permit — held by Ocala Thoroughbred Racing — and owned by none other than the FTBOA.
A records search of the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations reveals the owner of the dormant permit in question, Ocala Thoroughbred Racing, Inc., has the same board of directors as the FTBOA. Also, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Ocala Thoroughbred is not on the agency’s current list of active pari-mutuel permit holders for 2015-2016 which makes it a dormant permit.
Through this discovery, it appears an implicit goal of the FTBOA executive board is to reinvent itself as a “not for profit” gaming company, eligible for exemption under the proposal. Although the FTBOA leadership publicly objects to decoupling — citing negative economic impact on their members — the board has quietly assembled lobbyists to work on a deal that allows for an exception: decoupling in exchange for the creation of a new casino — a very lucrative proposal for those involved.
In two separate court cases, the business practices, corporate governance and the legitimacy of the FTBOA has come under examination. One such case, set to be heard March 8, will determine whether the FTBOA’s monopoly is constitutional or deemed a special act. This pending litigation could easily explain the motivation behind ramped up efforts of FTBOA executives and lobbyists, seeking to sway lawmakers genuinely trying to help a failing industry.
However, even if one accepts the premise that the industry indeed needs help from lawmakers, the FTBOA itself is not the industry. It is evident the FTBOA executive team (and their lobbyists) are putting forth considerable effort to replace a corporate revenue stream in jeopardy, especially if the group’s statutorily granted monopoly is struck down by the courts next month.
Beginning in late 2013, the FTBOA mounted a campaign to bring a casino to Marion County, which was met with stiff resistance from local politicians who bristled at the idea. Fast forward to 2016, with a renewed effort to renegotiate a Seminole Compact.
Now, as a result of these behind-the-scenes deals in the halls of the Capitol, citizens of Marion County could end up with a new casino after all, like it or not.