Gambling-related ballot measures approved in Florida, Arkansas

Florida voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved ballot measures banning dog racing in the state and requiring statewide voter approval for any gambling expansion.

Florida voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved ballot measures banning dog racing in the state and requiring statewide voter approval for any gambling expansion.

The two Florida ballot measures were among a number of gambling issues up for a vote on Tuesday in states across the country. In Arkansas, voters approved a measure allowing for four casinos, which will allow Oaklawn Park to install slot machines and other casino games to replace its historical horse-racing machines. In Idaho, voters rejected a measure that would have allowed for those devices, likely dooming an effort by the owners of a racetrack there to reopen.

The Florida measure banning dog racing, which passed with 69 percent approval, requires all dog tracks to close by 2021 but would allow the state’s existing dog tracks to retain their casino-gambling licenses provided they shutter by the end of next year. The measure, which was pushed by a well-funded group that has sought a ban on dog racing in the past, is an ominous sign for businesses that rely on animals for sport or entertainment, with animal-welfare concerns drawing broad support from wide swaths of the public.

Florida has 11 of the 17 dog tracks operating in the U.S. Massachusetts banned dog racing by public vote in 2008.

The Florida gambling-expansion measure would require that any legislation allowing for additional gambling in the state be put to a public vote, with a 60 percent minimum for passage. Most notably, the approval of the measure places an additional hurdle in front of efforts to legalize sports wagering in the state, a form of betting that is being pursued in multiple jurisdictions after a ruling by the Supreme Court this year allowing states to decide the issue without federal interference.

Representatives of horse racing in Florida were split on the gambling-expansion measure. The measure was supported by the Seminole Tribe, which operates the state’s most lucrative casinos, and the Disney Corp., which has massive entertainment properties in the state that are already threatened by gambling tourism.

Some parimutuel interests in Florida, most notably the state’s horsemen’s organization, supported the measure as a way to place a check on future legislation that would allow racetracks to decouple their racing licenses from their casino licenses.

The ballot measure in Arkansas will allow the legislature to award four casino licenses, but two of those are reserved for Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis. Oaklawn has operated historical horse-racing machines for 13 years and has used a portion of the proceeds to boost purses at its popular winter-spring meet. The other two licenses would go to casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties, provided local elected officials support the projects.

"Now that voters have spoken, Oaklawn will move forward as legislation and regulation permits," Oaklawn spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyt said in a statement.

The rejection in Idaho of a measure to legalize historical horse-racing machines is likely a death blow to the owners of Les Bois, after five years of legal wrangling over the devices. In 2013, the legislature approved the machines, but two years later the law was repealed on concerns that the devices were merely slot machines in disguise. Les Bois closed after the legislation was repealed, and it bankrolled the effort to get this year’s measure on the ballot.

Finally, in Kentucky, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, the representative for a district that includes Fayette County and the heart of horse country, defeated Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot, by a vote of 51 percent to 47.8 percent. Barr is the co-sponsor of a bill that would create a federal overseer for racing’s medication regulations and penalties, and the race was being closely watched by the racing industry.

The bill is not universally supported in racing and has never been put up for a vote. Horse-racing lobbyists noted that the racing industry is a strong element of the Central Kentucky economy, and several said ahead of the election that the result likely would only have a direct bearing on the fate of Barr’s bill, instead of a more general impact on the influence of the racing industry within the district.

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