TALLAHASSEE — It may be the ultimate legislative session wild card, but House and Senate leaders confirmed Monday they are engaged in an effort to reach a deal with the governor that would update Florida’s gambling laws by allowing organized sports betting and bring in new revenue from the Seminole Tribe.
“The House and Senate have begun informal discussions on what a compact and gaming bill would look like,” Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, told the Herald/Times. He said he and Senate President Bill Galvano have been working on a proposal with their counterparts in the House, Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, and House Speaker José Oliva.
LaRosa, who along with Hutson tried and failed to negotiate a gaming deal in 2018, said lawmakers are hoping to find an agreement that would allow the Seminole Tribe, which owns the Hard Rock casinos, to restore its revenue sharing payments to the state, and also help the pari-mutuel industry “modernize” its gambling options.
“We’re going after the big items and, if we can agree to them, we’ll work on laying out the details and the policy,’’ LaRosa said. “Hopefully, we get something accomplished.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has outlined his parameters, emphasizing “he doesn’t want any broad expansion of gaming in Florida,’’ Hutson said.
Among the ideas being discussed is a plan to allow the pari-mutuels to continue operating designated-player games, the card games that a federal judge said violated the Seminole Tribe’s now-defunct agreement with the state.
When the state refused to crack down on the games at horse, dog and jai-alai venues around the state, as it had agreed to in a consent agreement negotiated under former Gov. Rick Scott, the Tribe stopped paying its $350 million in revenue sharing.
The money left a hole in the state budget and, despite an unsuccessful effort last year by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, to negotiate a deal with the Tribe, lawmakers have gone without the revenue.
The U.S. Supreme Court allowed sports betting in Florida and other states with a 2018 ruling in a New Jersey case.
In order for the Tribe to enter into a compact that involves revenue sharing with Florida, the state would have to give it exclusive access to something its competitors don’t have. Legislators see sports betting as an opportunity to give the Tribe something exclusive, allow the pari-mutuels to keep their controversial card games, and increase state revenue.
The proposal would add online sports betting to the menu in poker rooms at dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons around the state but only because those changes would be part of the Tribe’s getting exclusive access to other games, including operating the sports betting.
LaRosa said the options include expanding the hours of operation for tribal casinos, giving them craps, roulette and/or sports gambling. The Seminoles would operate as the “hub” for the sports bets, by running sports books at its own casinos while also getting a cut of the revenues made from bets made at pari-mutuels around the state.
Hutson emphasized that because there are so many combinations of options available to negotiators, “nothing has been formalized or written and we are nowhere near showing anything to the governor yet.”
“We’re still talking at the 100,000-foot level,” he added. “If we can’t get there without the House and Senate in agreement on something to present the governor, we won’t present anything.”
Central to the deal is agreement by the Tribe, LaRosa said. “They have made their position very clear and they have to sign it.”
Hutson conceded that whatever they agree to will likely have to come before voters for statewide approval. A constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2018 requires a statewide vote on any legislation that expands gambling in Florida, excluding any expansion allowed in a compact with a Native American tribe.
“Everything we talked about — if it is somewhat expansive — it would have to go before voters as a constitutional amendment,’’ Hutson said.
But LaRosa said voter approval may not be necessary with a narrowly-crafted deal that puts expanded games in control of the Seminole Tribe.
He said he could conceive of an arrangement that would allow sports bets to be made at horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons across the state using a system described as “geo-fencing,” in which the bets would go through servers run by the Tribe and “the transaction takes place on their property,’’ he said.
“Since designated-player games are already happening, I don’t feel we need to do anything one way or another as it relates to Amendment 3,’’ he said.
John Sowinski, director of No Casinos — which sponsored Amendment 3 and successfully won voter approval for it in 2018 — said he believes that any deal that says transactions outside of a tribal casino are authorized because a server is on tribal land would face a legal challenge.
“Any judge would call [BS] on that,’’ he said. “If you don’t have [tribal] land in federal trust and just need a server, then it’s ‘Katie, bar the door.’ ”