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Decoupling Could Kill Florida’s Horse Industry, Ocala Star-Banner Editorial Board Writes

Decoupling Could Kill Florida’s Horse Industry, Ocala Star-Banner Editorial Board Writes

The Ocala Star-Banner published the following editorial on Sun., Oct. 25, 2015:

Florida’s multi-billion-dollar horse industry is in a fight for its life — and the threat is coming straight out of Tallahassee.

Big casino interests salivating over expanding into Florida and the Seminole Tribe, which already operates casinos in our state, are pushing Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to support “decoupling” legislation. And what is decoupling?

A decade ago, Florida voters agreed to allow some gambling venues — horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons — to offer slot machines and poker rooms. But it came with a condition — that the new gambling enterprises would be “coupled” with existing pari-mutuel operations. Coupling, for the horse racing industry, meant tracks would have more money to provide bigger purses, thereby attracting better horses, trainers and racing events.

Now, many in Tallahassee are being urged to embrace decoupling, which would allow for a vast expansion of casino-style gambling in our state with little direct economic return.

In fact, it would most likely lead to a huge economic loss for the state. Horse owners, trainers, breeders and the businesses that support them would inevitably flee Florida’s balmy climes for coupled states where track purses are bigger.

Adopting decoupling as public policy in Florida would not only be ill-advised, but inexplicable. Here in Ocala/Marion County alone, the equine industry is a billion-dollar industry that, when all its spinoff benefits are calculated, accounts to $2.6 billion of economic activity each year. Statewide, more than 12,000 people are employed by the horse breeding, training and racing, not to mention it has become a signature industry for our community.

Yet, there is a strong push from some quarters as Gov. Rick Scott’s staff works to renegotiate its deal with the Seminole Tribe — and eager casino outfits watch eagerly — to do what is bad for Florida economically. Decoupling would allow for vast expansion of gambling with no benefit to anyone buy gambling corporations.

“Because millions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually to lure various corporations to the Sunshine State through agencies such as Enterprise Florida, it’s hard to fathom why our elected officials are entertaining the ill-advised notion of ‘decoupling’ slot machines from horse racing, a lucrative industry that takes no public funding,” Bill White, president of the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, wrote on this page a few months back.

He’s right. Since coupling was adopted in Florida in 2005, it has accomplished what it was intended to — bolstered the horse breeding industry, created new jobs and increased tax revenues. So it is indeed befuddling that a state that has made job creation and protection a public policy cornerstone would gamble and enact legislation that, in this case, would do just the opposite.

This is not just about gambling. This is about an industry that cares for, works and preserves some of our most spectacular agricultural lands. This about choosing between raising horses and rasing casino bets. This is about potentially bringing an established signature industry to its knees because it can no longer compete financially.

Decoupling is bad for Florida. The only winners will be big casino benefactors.

We urge our legislative delegation to band together and stand tall and speak forcefully to stop this bad public policy move.  Keeping coupling in place is good for Florida’s and Ocala’s horse industry. But more important, it’s good for Florida.