Legislators have begun to discuss the future of greyhound racing in Iowa, but they’re discovering a rocky road lies ahead as even a proposed study of the issue prompts a quarrel. 

Three state senators sat down today with representatives of the casino industry and greyhound breeders to talk about a bill that would close the two greyhound tracks in Council Bluffs and Dubuque.  Senator Pam Jochum of Dubuque says with just a few days left in the 2010 session, lawmakers won’t pass that bill, but they may direct the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to study the issue.

“Some kind of a study is probably more in order to sort through all of this conflicting information,” Jochum says. 

Jochum and two other senators met with a lobbyist for Harrah’s casino in Council Bluffs which is connected to the Bluffs Run race track, plus two western Iowa greyhound breeders and two lobbyists for the Iowa Greyhound Association.  Jim Carney, a lobbyist for Harrah’s, told the senators greyhound racing is a dying industry.  Carney also accused greyhound breeders in Iowa of giving varying accounts of the industry’s economic impact.

“I don’t know what the truth of the matter is,” Carney said. 

Carney held up charts showing wagering on dog racing in Iowa has declined by 94 percent and he said many of the “purses” or cash prizes paid to the owners of top dogs who race at the two tracks go to out-of-state owners.  

“Now they can try to blame this on Harrah’s,” Carney said. “They can try to blame it on anyone they want, but what is happening is all across American is people are going away from dogs.”

Don Avenson, a lobbyist representing the Iowa Greyhound Breeders Association, shot back on the accusation that purse prizes were benefitting out-of-state dog owners.

“It is peanuts compared to what goes out of state to Harrah’s,” Avenson said.  “They have taken hundreds of millions of dollars of our people’s money to Las Vegas.”

Lobbyist Tom Cope also spoke on behalf of the greyhound breeders. “The number of jobs related to this industry has increased significantly over the last six years, by 50 percent,” Cope told the three senators, “so I think one of the fundamental questions is not just what’s happening nationally to this industry, but what’s happening in the state of Iowa.”

Senator Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City suggested the two sides should negotiate. “I hear the concern about jobs.  I am very concerned about that  and the investments that people have made,” Bolkcom said.  “And maybe the task is to send folks away with the task of what a proposal would even begin to look like to transition ourselves out of dog racing in Iowa.”

The Iowa House, meanwhile, has voted against the idea of a casino-financed study of the state’s greyhound industry.  Representative Clel Baulder of Greenfield  sees a conspiracy that he contends involves not only the casinos, but the Humane Society. “I think this is a ploy to get rid of dog racing in Iowa,” Baudler said during House debate.

Baudler was among those who voted against the idea of letting the two casinos in Council Bluffs and Dubuque which have adjacent greyhound tracks finance a study. The study would determine the “viability of pari-mutuel dog racetracks in the state” according to the wording of the proposal presented in the House.

“Let’s keep the dogs running.  They’re bred and born to run,” Baudler said.  “We have 147 greyhound kennels that rely on this income.  Let’s not put them out of business.” 

Representative Rick Olson of Des Moines argued that it makes no sense to have the two casinos that hope to close their greyhound tracks pay for the study. “It’s kind of like having the fox guard the henhouse to finance the very study that they want to be utilized to eliminate greyhound racing in the state of Iowa,” Olson said. 

Supporters of the casino-financed study said it “made sense” to find funding for the study outside of state government, but they lost that argument when 50 members of the House voted against the idea and only 32 voted for it.  The House may revisit the issue when House members resume debate on a wide-ranging bill that includes a call for an Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission study of greyhound racing.