Deal being brokered to end live dog racing in Iowa

Under the proposal, live dog racing could end in January 2015

Rod Boshart
Published: February 19 2014 | 1:57 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:53 am in
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DES MOINES – State lawmakers Wednesday were asked to referee a “divorce” between Iowa’s greyhound industry and racetrack casinos in Council Bluffs and Dubuque that want to end live dog racing in the face of a faltering followings.

However, by day’s end, it appeared the issue had gridlocked in the Senate State Government Committee and the panel’s chairman said nothing would happen this session unless a bipartisan compromise could rally against some long-shot odds.

“We don’t have a live bill anymore,” said committee chairman Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, after efforts to build support for an alternative solution failed to get out of the legislative gates.

Don Avenson, a lobbyist for the Iowa Greyhound Association and a former lawmaker who was House speaker when the Legislature approved a “forced marriage” between the tracks and various elements of the dog-racing industry, said it would be up to elected officials to negotiate an equitable severance agreement if the gambling activity is to end in Iowa -- one of only six states where live greyhound racing is available.

“It’s for you to decide what the conditions of the divorce will be because this, in fact, is a divorce,” Avenson told members of a Senate panel Wednesday. He said the situation is complicated because the Dubuque track is a local entity while the Council Bluffs is run by an out-of-state gambling interest.

Jim Carney, a lobbyist for Caesar’s Entertainment, which operates the Bluffs Run Greyhound Park and Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, said the two Iowa tracks offering dog races are proposing an “unprecedented” $70 million buyout to end greyhound racing in Iowa.

Jesus Aviles, president & CEO of Mystique casino and the Dubuque track, which is a party in the $70 million offer to the greyhound industry, said he was not opposed to the “divorce” as Avenson termed it, but added “I’m just opposed to being taken to the cleaners in the process” by an industry that keeps upping the ante.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said he feared the outcome would be unpleasant given Wednesday’s rhetoric by the two sides and he opted for an alternative approach being formulated by senators that would provide a $95 million payout over seven years and would allow the Iowa Greyhound Association to pursue a new “racino” to continue live dog racing at a licensed Iowa gaming facility.

Under the proposal, live dog racing could end in January 2015. If a new track could be found to offer dog racing, the entity would be allowed to conduct gambling games but could not be located within 50 miles of the current dog tracks and would have to apply for a license with the state Racing and Gaming Commission by July 1, 2019.

However, that approach died in the legislative funnel when it failed to clear the Senate committee this week.

“It simply allows for the option of a new facility or an existing facility,” said Danielson, in lieu of a phase-out of dog racing in Dubuque and Council Bluffs. He said any agreement would be a multi-year resolution that would have to address labor, supply chain, dog breeders, greyhounds and other elements of the existing industry.

A House committee did approved a measure that calls for ending dog racing and distributing money to the racing retirement fund to compensate dog owners and breeders. However, it is a version that likely won’t move in the Senate if representatives are able to get it through the House.

If the tracks are closed, Iowa would be following a national trend. Thirty dog tracks have closed in recent years. There are 21 greyhound tracks still operating across the country.

“No one goes to the dog tracks,” Carney said. “The two cities that have dog tracks say we want out of dog racing.”

It’s been legal to bet on dog racing in Iowa since the mid-1980s. However, attendance and wagering at Iowa’s two tracks has fallen since 1991 when casino-style gambling was legalized on riverboats. That year, $28 million was wagered at the Dubuque track. That’s fallen to about $2 million a year.

Similar bills were offered in 2010 and 2012 including provisions for the casinos in Dubuque and Council Bluffs to pay the state millions in return for an end to dog racing.

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