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Some Florida conservatives don’t like gambling. Are they being heard?

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican leaders are often attuned to the concerns of conservative voters.
Pastor Kevin Baird speaks to a crowd protesting gambling at the Florida Capitol during a special session centered around passing gambling legislation, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Tallahassee.
Pastor Kevin Baird speaks to a crowd protesting gambling at the Florida Capitol during a special session centered around passing gambling legislation, Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Tallahassee. [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
Published May 18
Updated May 18

TALLAHASSEE — Mary Lib Stevenson and her husband, Alan Stevenson, are the kind of voters who wish the Florida Legislature were more conservative. Mary is the president of a Christian group that advocates for teaching creationism in schools, opposing gay marriage and fighting the expansion of legal gambling. Alan sits on the group’s board.

The Stevensons traveled 180 miles from their home south of Jacksonville to attend a rally at the Capitol Tuesday. They came to protest a gaming compact negotiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican leaders of the Legislature. Casinos, they argued, are dens of vice, and any revenue derived from gambling is more than offset by the activity’s societal costs.

DeSantis and Republican leaders are often attuned to the concerns of voters like the Stevensons. The governor made a parental consent abortion bill a legislative priority. Last month, Republican lawmakers approved a bill prohibiting trasngender females from playing in women’s and girls’ scholastic sports — a national priority of Christian conservative groups.

But during this week’s special legislative session, in which lawmakers are quickly moving a series of policies which would expand legal gambling, a vocal bloc of the Republican constituency opposes the lawmakers they had previously supported.

On Tuesday, Florida Family Action staged a rally near the steps of the Old Capitol to send a message to state lawmakers. Among the most controversial provisions in the sweeping, 30-year compact to the rally’s attendees: a provision which would allow for the construction of up to three new casinos in Broward and the section giving the Seminole Tribe of Florida the right to operate digital sports books in the state.

“This is serious, guys. Gambling brings financial, relationship, emotional breakdowns,” said Marilyn Rivera, a pastor from the Miami area who bused to Tallahassee with dozens of congregants to oppose the compact.

The event at which Rivera spoke was organized by Florida Family Action, an influential Christian conservative group led by attorney John Stemberger. The attoreny’s group paid for the transportation of various anti-gambling voices from across the state: Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando. Before the rally program began, attendees were fed boxed lunches of Chick-fil-A.

Jennifer Kruse the Executive Director of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, said in an interview last week that the expansion of gambling does open the door to more abuse. This is particularly true, she noted, if a gambler can bet remotely.

However, Kruse said that for decades, the Seminole Tribe has been “very supportive” of efforts to curb problem gaming.

Yet even as Tuesday’s speakers were railing against the deal, the state Senate voted to approve the new compact by a vote of 38-1.

The compact appears to be so popular among otherwise socially conservative members because they don’t see the agreement as an expansion of gambling in Florida. Illegal gambling is already happening in the state, they argue. The compact at least gives the state a chance to regulate it.

“It could be argued as an expansion today, but over the next 30 years, it’s likely going to keep gambling contained,” said Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, who voted for the compact Tuesday.

The agreement’s future in the House is more uncertain, but House Speaker Chris Sprowls has said the Legislature’s business would likely finish by Wednesday.

Still, Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, voiced concerns at Tuesday’s rally.

“This is not new economic development,” Beltran said in an interview. “You’re moving money around.”

Sprowls negotiated an amendment to the compact to strip a provision from the deal that could have opened the door to casino-style gaming on cell phones in future years. The amendment also delayed online sports betting until Oct. 15, 2021. The changes were made in the hopes of appeasing the concerns of some of the more skeptical House lawmakers.

But in an interview, Stemberger said he didn’t think the change was enough.

Republican support for the compact could come at a political cost. After the rally, the crowd of about 200 took to the Florida Capitol to make their case to lawmakers.

The Stevensons paid a visit to the office of Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, who’s sponsoring the bill to implement the renewed compact. He wasn’t there.

“Everybody in my neighborhood, I’m going to tell them not to vote for Bobby Payne,” Mary Lib Stevenson said.

Later in the day, Payne called the couple on the phone to explain his support for the new agreement. He said he was sorry he missed them at his office.

“I don’t like gambling. None of us really like gambling,” Payne said in an interview, explaining his position. But I want to put the state of Florida in the best possible position if we’re going to have a compact.”

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