PHOENIX — State legislators are moving to finally end dog racing in Arizona, a sport one lawmaker called "one step above dog fighting."
Legislation unanimously approved Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee would make the practice illegal at the end of the year. That would leave horse racing as the only live animal racing sport here.
In a curious twist, HB 2127 has the support of the owners of Tucson Greyhound Park, the last remaining track in the state. Lobbyist Mike Racy said the owners are willing to pull the plug.
But that support comes with a price tag: Track owners want to preserve their exclusive right to operate off-track betting facilities around Southern Arizona for the next two years.
That move is getting a fight from the owners of horse tracks who now must pay Tucson Greyhound Park a fee of about $500,000 a year to have their signals from their live races carried at those OTB locations. They would rather set up their own off-track betting sites.
But lawmakers, clearly anxious to put a halt to dog racing, were not anxious to disturb what appears to be a delicately crafted agreement between the track's owners and Grey2K USA, the national organization that has been working to wipe out dog racing worldwide and promote the "rescue" and adoption of dogs that owners no longer want for racing.
Joe Romack, who told lawmakers he rescues greyhounds, urged them to approve the measure.
"I get these dogs off the track and see how abused they have been," he said. A greyhound brought to him from the Tucson track died last week after there was a delay in surrendering the animal for treatment, Romack told lawmakers.
"They're in cages 20 hours a day," he said.
"They sleep on scraps of urine-soaked carpet,"Romack continued, living in small cages. "We need to end the abuse."
That description drew derision from Rory Goree, chairman of the Arizona Racing Commission.
"I know in the media you have heard a lot of lies about Tucson Greyhound Park," he told lawmakers. "Those dogs are not as bad off as other people that you heard earlier, or the media, claim.''
Goree said if the owners of Tucson Greyhound Park want to shut down, that's their decision. But he said the practice should not be outlawed in case the company that owns now-shuttered parks in Phoenix and Apache Junction want to reopen.
And Bill Rice, representing the Arizona Greyhound Association which includes dog owners and kennel operators, lashed out at Grey2K.
"They've never rescued a dog in their life," he said.
None of that impressed Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson.
"Greyhound racing isn't a sport," he said. "It's a cruel practice that's like one step above dog fighting."
Farley said the issue is complicated by the "perverse" fact that Arizona laws actually seem to keep the practice alive.
That includes tax credits which Racy said were enacted to help the tracks after tribal gaming was made legal. Green said there is $4.8 million in tax credits sitting in an account that can be used against future earnings.
"It's just not right," Green said.
And then there's the "dome," the exclusive right to operate off-track betting.
Racy said that right needs to be preserved for the next two years, beyond the end of live racing, for economic reasons.
He said Tucson Greyhond Park, with 100 workers, is the largest employer in South Tucson. He said it needs time to transition.
That move will get a fight from Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, when the measure goes to the Senate floor. He said there is no reason for the horse tracks to have to keep paying Tucson Greyhound Park for off-track betting services for another two years.
That's also the assessment of Sen. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma.
But Farley said it has taken years for all sides to come to an agreement and cautioned that any change in the deal could pull it apart — and kill the legislation to end dog racing.
Pierce, however, said he's not worried. He said the finances of it all will kill dog racing, sooner or later.
"I don't believe they want to keep losing money down there," he said of the Tucson park.