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Angst over Florida’s expansion of mobile betting brings changes to gaming compact

Legislators were called in for a weeklong special session to consider approving the compact — and 18 other gambling bills. But legislative leaders said they expect to vote everything out by Wednesday.
The Hard Rock's guitar-shaped hotel in Hollywood after sunset on April 8, 2020.
The Hard Rock's guitar-shaped hotel in Hollywood after sunset on April 8, 2020.
Published May 18, 2021
Updated May 18, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — On the first day of a legislative session on gambling, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida made a concession: They amended the 30-year gaming deal to take out a provision that they will meet again in three years to talk about full online gambling.

The changes came after conservative legislators in the Florida House of Representatives, including House Speaker Chris Sprowls, were concerned the provision could have allowed the governor to negotiate a new deal to allow Floridians to play casino games, such as slot machines, on their mobile devices.

“That was by far the number one issue. People were not comfortable with agreeing to online slot machines from your couch,” said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, chair of the House Select Committee on Gaming and a long-time gaming executive who is now retired.

The amendment also says the Tribe cannot start taking sports bets until after Oct. 15, instead of when it is approved by the federal Department of Interior. The changes, however, would not stop the governor or the Tribe from returning to the negotiating table any time during the 30-year life of the agreement.

Many Democrats remain concerned about other policy, financial and political components inside the sweeping gaming deal, including the legal implications, and whether the state is getting enough money out of a deal that in essence gives the Tribe a monopoly on sports books for the next 30 years.

“The changes are welcome changes — important ones — but many Democrats also believe there is great room and opportunity for improvement,” said Rep. Nick Duran, D-Miami.

Aside from policy, Democrats are also concerned about the “speed” in which Republicans are ramming a 30-year gambling agreement through the legislative process.

“The longer we have had time to review the new compact, the more questions arise,” Duran and Rep. Joe Geller, the co-chairs of a Democratic-led special gaming committee, wrote in an email to House Democrats late last week.

Legislators were called in for a weeklong special session to consider approving the compact — and 18 other gambling bills. But legislative leaders appeared ready to race through the proposals, and on Monday Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson said they expect legislators to vote everything out by Wednesday.

“The implications of this bill, and the nuances, are not not easily understood by the Legislature and, given the timeframe and the one committee stop, they won’t be,’' said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who was the lone vote against ratifying the compact in the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting Monday.

The game plan

Republican legislative leaders signaled that the renegotiated gaming compact may have enough votes to be ratified by the GOP-led state Legislature this week.

If the deal is approved, it must next receive approval from the Department of the Interior to make sure it complies with the federal Indian Gaming Act. If approved, Florida would become the most populous state in the nation to legalize sports betting, and the Tribe would have a monopoly as the exclusive operator of digital sports betting hubs in Florida for the next 30 years.

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Under the agreement, race tracks and jai-alai frontons throughout the state would also be allowed to offer rebranded sports books as long as all bets go through the tribe’s online server, operating on tribal land. The Tribe would also be allowed to build up to three more casinos on its tribal reservation near Hollywood, where the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is located.

In exchange for all those components, the Tribe would give the state a minimum of $500 million in annual payments, an amount that could go up as the market and profits expand.

Portions of the compact and gambling bills came under scrutiny on Monday as lawmakers and competing gaming interests questioned the legality of some provisions, the revenue distributions in cities in Broward County, and how the state should spend the annual payments it will get from the Tribe.

Broward County turf war

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, for instance, attempted to get another change to the compact to revise the local revenue share to cities in Broward County, giving Hollywood 40 percent of the proceeds instead of the 35 percent agreed to by the governor.

Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy said his city receives 55 percent of the local revenue share under the current compact, and the new compact allows for the development of three more casinos within the city and is therefore deserving of a greater share. Because 78 percent of the reservation is surrounded by the city of Hollywood, he said the city shoulders much of the traffic burden, provides fire and police backup and some water and sewer service and should receive more in impact fees.

A Democrat-sponsored amendment that would have left Hollywood’s 55 percent local revenue share in place was voted down during a House committee meeting Monday afternoon.

House Democrats are also trying to have more of a say on how the $500 million in annual payments should be used by leveraging their votes on gambling bills that deal with fee increases, which need support of two-thirds of lawmakers in keeping with a constitutional provision.

“If our votes are necessary … then the House Democratic Caucus should have some say in establishing dedicated revenue spending (that cannot be raided) on portions of the total revenues that come to the state,” Duran and Geller wrote in an email to House Democrats.

Democrats are proposing the new revenue be spent on affordable housing, expanding Medicaid and unemployment benefits and aid for small businesses, among other issues.

“We don’t need more tax breaks for the rich guys,” Geller said. “Some of this money needs to be put to helping the people of Florida.”

House Democratic co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said members are already getting calls from the governor’s office to lobby support for gaming issues. House Democrats are wondering if those calls are coming in because Republicans need some votes to get the deal ratified.

The governor has some muscle

With budget vetoes still looming, though, Jenne said the governor has significant leverage over members.

“I haven’t heard about any specific threats or anything. But look, anyone who’s been in this process for any amount of time knows your budget line items aren’t safe until the governor puts pen to paper,” Jenne said. “I have not heard of him making any direct threat to any member, whatsoever. I have to emphasize that. But you really don’t have to if anybody has been here and understands the process.”

House Democrats are scheduled to meet Tuesday to decide whether they should take a caucus position against the gaming compact or any of the bills.

The compact also hasn’t won over all of the state’s conservative interests.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush sent out a statement warning about the impact the expansion of casino games and sports betting will have on South Florida.

“South Florida is on a roll,’' he said. “Our great quality of life and an incredible surge of job creators to our region have put us on a path for rising income and prosperity for many more of our neighbors. At the time when our economy is poised for an unprecedented takeoff after taking a hit from the pandemic, now is not the time to expand casino gambling which will benefit a handful at the expense of many.”

John Stemberger, the president and general counsel of the Florida Family Policy Council, one of the most influential Christian conservative policy voices in the state, echoed Bush’s theme.

“To me, this is just literally pouring tar all over the whole state,” he said. “It’s not family friendly. Casino-type enterprises cannibalize local’s just bad all the way around.” .

On Tuesday, his organization is holding a rally at the Capitol to oppose the expansion of gambling in Florida.

After the rally, Stemberger said he and his fellow rally participants plan to meet with lawmakers to outline their concerns about the compact.

Fantasy sports in question

Powerful companies impacted by the gambling bills ramped up lobbying efforts in recent weeks and on Monday spoke in opposition to some of the proposed legislation.

DraftKings and FanDuel, two of the nation’s largest fantasy sports companies, came out in opposition of a House bill that would regulate the multi-billion dollar industry of imaginary sports contests.

Scott Ward, a representative for both companies, said the bill would disenfranchise some three million Floridians from playing fantasy sports as currently written, and he pushed back against provisions that would carve out college sports and make 21 the minimum age for engaging in fantasy sports contests.

“I do think it’s ironic that the other bills offered on sports betting allow you to bet on college sports, but this bill will not allow you to bet on fantasy sports on college sports,” Ward said.

House and Senate committees will hear the series of bills on Tuesday, and the chambers are expected to vote them out on Wednesday.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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