DES MOINES — Greyhounds will likely continue to hurtle down the track at Bluffs Run in Council Bluffs after a measure to end dog racing was tabled Wednesday by an Iowa Senate committee.
The hangup was over a proposed amendment to allow the greyhound industry to open a new track elsewhere in Iowa. That provision was opposed by Caesar's Entertainment, owner of Bluffs Run, and by Republicans in the State Government Committee, said State Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, the chairman.
“In my judgment, going forward, this would have to be a bipartisan, bicameral effort,” Danielson said.
Not all Republicans oppose ending greyhound racing. A similar measure passed Wednesday in a similar committee in the GOP-controlled Iowa House.
Both proposals would allow the two casinos that operate dog tracks in Iowa — Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs and Mystique Casino in Dubuque — to drop greyhound racing but continue casino gambling.
The two casinos also would be required to pay millions to the state's greyhound industry, giving it a soft landing and helping it absorb the changes.
The Bluffs casino — the much larger facility — would pay about $55 million while the Dubuque casino would pay about $15 million, both over the course of seven years.
Gambling profits at the two dog tracks have plummeted from a combined total of $186 million in 1986 to $5.9 million in 2012.
The next step for the House measure will be consideration by the full body.
But the tabling of a greyhound bill in the Senate makes the effort to get a measure passed by the full Legislature a much steeper hill to climb.
“We will consider the House bill when it comes over, but obviously the Senate will make amendments,” Danielson said.
Leaders in both cities have endorsed proposals to allow Horseshoe and Mystique to keep their casino licenses without dog racing.
“The two cities that have dog tracks say that they want out of dog racing,” said Jim Carney, a lobbyist for Caesar's, which owns Horseshoe.
Bob Mundt, president and CEO of the Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce, said he favors dropping dog racing. The Bluffs track is situated along Interstates 29-80, has easy access and would be a good spot for redevelopment.
Other lawmakers, expressing concern over job losses, say they want the greyhound industry and casino industry to reach an agreement before a bill is formally on the table.
“We need to get a better agreement that's not shoved down everybody's throats,” said State Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, before the matter was voted on in the House State Government Committee. It passed, 15-8, with Hunter voting no.
Iowa is one of just seven states that still has legal, operating greyhound tracks. Commercial dog racing is illegal in 38 states.
Don Avenson, speaking for the Iowa Greyhound Association, described how the decreasing popularity of greyhound racing in the 1990s led the Legislature to allow the tracks to open up casinos.
“In effect, they forced a marriage between greyhound racing and the tracks,” he told the Senate subcommittee. “You guys who authorized this. . . it's for you to decide what the conditions of the divorce are.”
The Iowa greyhound industry has said hundreds of jobs are at stake. Supporters also note the millions of dollars tied to agriculture through breeding farms and kennel operations.
Casino lobbyists say the estimated number of greyhound industry jobs is being grossly inflated. Leaders of both casinos say they would try to accommodate laid-off track employees, while industry leaders say workers will lose seniority and pay.
Bill proponents point out the severe decline in dog racing in the United States over the past two decades. Twenty-nine dog tracks have closed in the past 20 years or so, Carney said.
“We are offering an unprecedented bailout,” Carney told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday. “To our knowledge (it) has never been done anywhere else in the United States.”
Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said it was sad to look at the possibility of greyhound racing ending in Iowa.
He recalled visiting Sodrac Park in South Dakota, a short distance from Sioux City, as a young man. But Sodrac closed years ago.
“It was a good time. It was. But it's a dying product,” he said.