DeSantis ready to change gambling landscape in Florida with sweeping new deal with Seminoles

Gov. Ron DeSantis is on the verge of hitting a political jackpot that will bring legal sports betting to Florida and generate billions of dollars of new revenue for the state.

The Florida Legislature on Monday will take up a 30-year gambling deal signed by DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

It could be the moment in DeSantis’ governorship that cements him as a dealmaker. The Republican governor served as a driving force in putting the agreement together, said Marc Dunbar, who teaches gambling law at Florida State University.

“You have a convergence that hasn’t occurred in some time,” he said. “You have a governor who really leaned his shoulder into it and demonstrated a level of leadership that hadn’t occurred.”

The deal has big implications for Florida’s future. Sports betting would be allowed, with wagers running through the Seminole Tribe. A cluster of three new casinos could be built at the Seminole Tribe’s Hollywood reservation, which is already home to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and a guitar-shaped hotel. The Seminoles would be able to offer craps and roulette at its casinos.

The Seminole Hard Rock's guitar-shaped hotel in Hollywood is a South Florida landmark.

The Seminole Hard Rock’s guitar-shaped hotel in Hollywood is a South Florida landmark. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

It also would deliver new revenue to Florida, providing at least $500 million annually that could be used for education, affordable housing, the environment or other priorities as determined by the Legislature.

What happens next week will shape the state for generations to come, said state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

“A child born on the day this is ratified, it will last until they are 30 years old,” said Jenne, a co-leader of House Democrats. “It has huge long-term ramifications.”

It’s a safe bet that Florida’s Republican Legislature will approve the gambling deal signed by DeSantis, said Bob Jarvis, a gambling law expert at Nova Southeastern University.

“The Republican leadership has very tight control over its members,” Jarvis said. “You get out of line, you get punished. This idea you have Republican legislators blow this up, that is absurd.”

The deal has opposition. The anti-gambling group No Casinos argues that Florida voters should decide whether gambling is expanded in Florida — not the Legislature.

Historically, gambling has been a tricky issue in Florida where interests have transcended partisan allegiances. Disney and its Central Florida allies have wanted to maintain a family-friendly image and reduce competition for tourism dollars that could be sucked up by casinos. North Florida’s social conservatives have objected to gambling on religious and moral grounds, while liberals worry gambling exploits the poor.

South Florida has historically been the most open to gambling.

A variety of factors have converged to make the gambling deal likely. DeSantis is popular with his party, allowing him to secure the support of the Florida Legislature’s GOP leaders. In the past, social conservatives in the Florida House have been a stumbling block for gambling legislation.

The pandemic’s economic fallout accelerated negotiations with the prospect that Florida could face huge revenue shortfalls. An infusion of billions of dollars in federal relief helped to take some of the pressure off state leaders, but the pandemic’s long-term economic toll is still a concern.

Two years ago, the Seminole Tribe ended annual payments of roughly $350 million made through a 2010 revenue-sharing agreement it had with the state. The agreement granted the tribe exclusivity on lucrative blackjack and other banked card games at its casinos. The tribe stopped payments amid concerns that its competitors’ designated player card games, which include a hybrid of three-card poker, violated the exclusivity terms.

DeSantis’ predecessor — Rick Scott — tried to broker a peace among the state’s gambling interests and get a new deal approved. He couldn’t get it through the Legislature.

Under DeSantis’ deal, pari-mutuel card rooms would be able to offer designated player games without running afoul of gambling regulations, resolving one of the biggest sources of contention.

Florida’s leaders also have been watching other states authorize sports betting as allowed by a 2018 Supreme Court decision. About two dozen states have legalized sports betting.

State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, sponsored legislation to legalize sports betting through a different framework, but he is supporting DeSantis’ agreement.

“It is something that Floridians are already doing either through other states or territories, and those dollars are leaving Florida,” he said.

Lawmakers will take up other gambling items that could face more political hurdles. If fines and fees are affected, the bills would require a two-thirds vote as opposed to a simple majority to pass, Jenne said.

The Legislature is expected to consider a measure that would allow casinos to operate card games without also having to run quarter horse or harness races or jai alai matches. That is known in industry jargon as “decoupling,” and it would likely mean the end of harness racing at Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park.

The Broward County track is the state’s last remaining spot for harness racing.

Another likely proposal would create a five-member, governor-appointed Gaming Control Commission with law enforcement authority over gambling laws.

The Seminoles also agreed not to block the transfer of gambling permits to the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach or to Trump National Doral.

If the Legislature approves the gambling deal, it will have additional regulatory and legal hurdles to overcome. The deal needs federal approval, and it could face legal challenges.

No Casinos maintains that Florida’s Constitution requires online sports betting to be authorized through a voter referendum.

Amendment 3, approved by voters in 2018, stipulated that a citizens’ initiative requiring at least 60% support from voters is “the exclusive method of authorizing casino gambling” in Florida.

A harness race is seen at Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park in Pompano Beach on April 25, 2021.

A harness race is seen at Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park in Pompano Beach on April 25, 2021. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

But Amendment 3 also includes a passage that it should not be “construed to limit the ability of the state or Native American tribes to negotiate gaming compacts pursuant to the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act for the conduct of casino gambling on tribal lands.”

The Seminoles maintain the servers that would process sports bets are on tribal land and would be covered by that provision.

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A lunch-hour look at what’s trending in Florida politics.

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, said he is concerned that the legalization of online sports betting could lead to more gambling addiction. Proposition bets allow gamblers to wager on everything from whether a quarterback will complete a pass to whether a batter will hit the ball on the next pitch.

“It’s been proven to be more addictive than slots machines,” Sowinski said. “Why? Because they study your habits through your online bets just like Facebook does for the types of things you like to click into … The advertising is so prolific that it’s like Joe Camel for gambling.”

Jarvis, the gambling expert, is betting the deal will succeed.

While Florida won’t rival Las Vegas or Macau as a gambling destination, it will be a major player, likely jumping ahead of Atlantic City, Jarvis said.

“There is too much money for too many players to have this deal fall apart,” he said.

Screen grabs from video of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino from the week of May 12, 2021. (Courtesy of Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino)

Screen grabs from video of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino from the week of May 12, 2021. (Courtesy of Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino) (Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino/Courtesy)

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