Florida Legislature approves Gov. DeSantis’ gambling deal with sports betting, but legal fights loom

TALLAHASSEE — Sports betting could soon be legal in Florida, as the Legislature on Wednesday ratified a sweeping new 30-year gambling deal Wednesday between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The Florida House voted 97-17 in favor of the deal that will bring an average of $500 million a year in new revenue to the state. The Florida Senate approved the deal Tuesday in a 38-1 vote.

But the agreement still needs federal approval, and sports betting under the deal can’t begin until Oct. 15. Also, lawsuits from groups opposed to the expansion of gambling could delay the start date further.

“The breakdown of the 2010 compact has denied the state of Florida any revenue derived from the Seminole Tribe’s ongoing gaming operations — including what is the most profitable casino in the United States, located in Hillsborough County. This changes today,” DeSantis said in a statement issued by his office. “With this new compact, the state will now see a large stream of reoccurring revenue to the tune of billions of dollars over the next few years.”

“Today, all the people of Florida are winners, thanks to legislative approval of the Gaming Compact between the State of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. said.

Under the deal’s terms, the Seminole Tribe will have a monopoly on sports betting, craps and roulette — games that weren’t authorized previously — and get to build three new casinos on its Hollywood reservation.

Other provisions of the deal could pave the way for gambling permits to be moved from some race tracks because the tribe agreed not to object as long as the new locations are at least 15 miles away from the tribe’s casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

That part of the deal generated opposition from some South Florida lawmakers, who are wary the 15-mile barrier would open the door for casinos to be placed at the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach, owned by billionaire Jeffrey Soffer, and to former GOP President Donald Trump’s golf resort in Doral.

Republican supporters of the measure assured Rep. Nicholas Duran, D-Miami Beach, that any transfer of a license would have to be approved by the Legislature first. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has also said he wouldn’t consider any license for the Fontainebleau next year.

Duran, however, still voted against the bill.

The concerns over a wave of new casinos in South Florida were only one of the thorny political entanglements that have thwarted previous attempts to renew the state’s deal with the tribe.

DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, also approved a deal with the Seminole Tribe in 2015 that would have allowed it to continue its monopoly on offering blackjack and other banked card games, as well as expanded the number of slot machines in other gambling operations in the state.

That agreement ran into opposition from social conservatives opposed to expanding gambling because they believe it is morally wrong and increases social ills such as domestic violence and substance abuse.

DeSantis, though, was able to overcome those objections, as only eight of the 17 no votes came from Republicans.

One of them was Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, who has pushed against gambling expansion since he entered the Legislature in 2010, including sponsoring bills to explicitly outlaw and crack down on internet cafes offering unauthorized casino games.

He said the state now needs to put more money behind efforts to prevent compulsive gambling and rework state laws governing those programs.

“That statute in general needs another look, especially in light of this [new deal],” Plakon said. “And that’s something I plan on taking a look at next year.”

The federal Department of the Interior will have to sign off on the measure, a process that could take until August, supporters of the deal said. The agreement also will likely face court challenges.

Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican and former gambling company executive who chaired the House Gaming Committee, said he’s not personally sure sports betting will withstand a legal challenge, but even if the courts strike it down, other parts of the deal will remain in place.

Any lawsuit will likely center on Amendment 3, passed by nearly 72% of voters in 2018, that specifies voters have the “exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling.” But it also includes language that it does not “limit the ability” of the Seminole Tribe and the state to negotiate gambling agreements “for the conduct of casino gambling on tribal lands.”

John Sowinski, president of the anti-gambling group No Casinos, vowed to continue his battle against the gambling expansion.

“This fight is just beginning,” he said in a statement. “We are committed to ensuring that the will of the people, who voted by a remarkable … landslide to give Florida voters the exclusive right to authorize casino gambling in our state, will be respected.”

One big question will be whether online sports betting is taking place on tribal land. Bets could be placed anywhere in the state through mobile apps, but the tribe maintains the bets will be processed by servers on tribal lands.

Opponents to the deal in the House argued that only voters can approve the gambling expansion, and the state should have received more money from the Seminole Tribe.

“They did a hell of a job,” he said. “It’s just us that didn’t do such a good job, and we could do better. … Why don’t we have a better deal?”

State Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, said Democrats were “locked out” of the process and denied any input on the deal, which will affect Floridians for years to come.

Democrats offered seven amendments on Wednesday, some of which would have directed the revenue from the deal toward areas of the budget they believe are perennially underfunded — mental health and substance abuse programs and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs. But all were ruled out of order by Republicans in control of the chamber.

Still, most Democrats voted in favor of the deal.

Another measure (SB 8-A) approved Wednesday will create a five-member, governor-appointed Gaming Control Commission that will be in charge of enforcing gambling rules and regulations.

Even those opposed to the deal approved of the new commission, which they believe will have greater enforcement powers to crack down on unauthorized gambling outfits. Plakon cited the recent sprouting of internet cafes as an example of what the new commission is likely to target.

The lack of meaningful enforcement against illegal gambling by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the state agency in charge of gambling regulation, was the main reason the tribe stopped making payments to the state as part of the previous deal.

But Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the only senator to vote against the new deal, noted the commission wouldn’t be able to investigate illegal activities in the tribe’s operations, since it is a sovereign entity.

The Power Lunch – Florida Politics Newsletter


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

The last bill approved by the House Wednesday allows harness and quarter horse tracks to end live racing while continuing to offer other forms of gambling, a provision known as “decoupling.” Thoroughbred horse tracks, however, were carved out of the bill, and those involved with breeding and racing standard-bred horses used in harness races were angered at the move, saying it will hurt their industry.

“We don’t have to do this,” said Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs, whose father is a trainer of standard-bred horses. “There is nothing urgent about this. This is not the compact.”

Daley’s amendment to leave in the requirement to conduct harness horse races was rejected, however.

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