TALLAHASSEE - Efforts to ban greyhound racing in the state gained momentum Thursday when the Florida Constitution Revision Commission agreed to submit to its Executive Committee a proposal that would place the decision in the hands of voters via the 2018 ballot. If approved by 60 percent of Florida voters, the ban would become effective Dec. 31, 2019.
The Florida Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years to review potential changes to the state Constitution.
The News Service of Florida reports supporters of the proposal pointed to issues such as greyhound injuries and deaths in arguing to shut down racing - a staple for decades of Florida's gambling industry.
“This is, for me, a matter of conscience,” said commission member and state Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who is sponsoring the proposal. “Our society has changed. We are evolving as a people. We are becoming more sensitive to those who occupy this world with us, regardless of their species, and to those who are going to follow us for generations to come. And that's a good thing. And as we've evolved, we've banned all sorts of activities that have been considered cruel to animals --- bullfighting and cockfighting and all kinds of things. To me, this is just the next step on that plane of becoming more sensitive to this kind of inhumanity.”
Representatives of pari-mutuel facilities and greyhound breeders and owners did not speak during Thursday's meeting. But during past legislative debates about curbing greyhound racing, representatives of breeders and owners have argued, in part, that such moves would lead to job losses.
Locally, the ban could mean economic impact for Washington County should Ebro Greyhound Park and Poker Room in Ebro suffer a loss of revenue from the ban.
First opened in 1955, the facility is located on State Road 79 just north of SR 20 and is Washington County’s only gaming venue, as well as one of its largest private employers. Owned and operated by the Hess family since 1967, Ebro Greyhound Park has historically staffed around 225 employees during the summer racing season and has welcomed as many as 2,000 daily during peak tourism season.
Ebro is among 19 greyhound racing permit holders operating at 12 tracks through the state. According to the Florida Division of Pari-Mutual Wagering report for 2015-16 fiscal year - the latest information available - Florida remains the leader in greyhound racing in the U.S. with a total of 3,369 completed performances, including charity and scholarship performances during Fiscal Year (FY) 15-16 - a four percent decrease from the previous year.
Greyhound permit holders collectively paid out a reported $25,948,623 in purses during that year and generated a total state revenue of $2.8 million through sources such as license fees, attendance tax, escheated tickets, and occupational licenses. The total pari-mutual handle reported from Ebro Greyhound Park for FY 15-16 was more than $1.4 million. The Ebro affiliated Washington County Kennel Club also generated more than $1,200 toward nearly $2 million paid in the FY 15-16 by the state's Racing Scholarship Trust Fund to approved charities and major state and private institute of higher learning.
The Hess family has owned and operated Ebro since 1967. President and General Manager Stockton “Stocky” Hess did not comment on the potential ban but told the Washington County News on Thursday that he is "monitoring" the proposal's progress in Tallahassee.
Jim Saunders and Tom Urban of The News Service Of Florida contributed to this report.