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Who’s regulating Florida’s new gambling landscape?

One Republican senator said the new positions will be “the best job in the State of Florida.”
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, on Thursday, April 22, 2021, at 5223 Orient Rd, in Tampa.
The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, on Thursday, April 22, 2021, at 5223 Orient Rd, in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 18
Updated May 18

TALLAHASSEE — Alongside a sweeping expansion of gambling, Florida lawmakers are set to create a new state gaming commission and law enforcement arm to root out illegal gambling.

But with just 15 positions and a minimal mandate, the new gaming commission won’t do much — at least not yet.

The new five-member Florida Gaming Control Commission and its new Division of Gaming Enforcement will not be allowed to police gambling by the Seminole Tribe, although the tribe will continue to dominate Florida’s new gambling landscape, which is set to include mobile sports betting and Las Vegas-style casinos.

The new agencies instead will focus on illegal card games, gambling halls and parimutuels, with the Tribe continuing to have the right to police itself.

Although the new commission will have a limited role, its mission is crucial to the state’s new agreement with the Seminole Tribe, according to Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International.

That’s because the state’s failure to police illegal card games at parimutuels led to the tribe canceling its gaming agreement, known as a compact, with the state in the first place.

For years, the tribe warned Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates parimutuels, that the facilities were offering card games that were prohibited under the state’s 2010 agreement with the tribe.

The state didn’t stop the parimutuels, however, and the tribe stopped its agreement in 2019, cutting off the roughly $250 million the tribe paid the state each year under the terms of the compact.

“We think it’s a real issue in Florida that there’s not a gaming commission,” Allen said. “Frankly, this compact would never have been breached by the state if there was a real gaming commission that had real law enforcement support.”

‘The best job in the State of Florida’

The new compact, expected to be approved by the Legislature on Wednesday, would make Florida the largest state in the nation to legalize sports betting, with the Tribe the exclusive operator of the digital sports books in Florida for the next 30 years. The Tribe would also be allowed to build three more casinos on tribal property in coming years, including Tampa’s Hard Rock.

In exchange, the Tribe would give the state a minimum of $500 million annually, an amount that could go up as the market and profits expand.

The gaming commission will ensure the state complies with its part of the compact, Allen said, but it’s left some lawmakers wondering why the commission needs to be so extensive.

The commission’s five members will be appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to four-year terms at a $136,000 annual salary. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the gaming commission on Tuesday, said those positions will amount to political patronage.

The positions will also be “the best job in the state of Florida,” Brandes said during a debate on Monday.

“You’re going to be able to get this job and actually not have to go after the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is the tribe,” Brandes said. “You’re going to be sniffing around small counties looking for backroom card games — maybe.”

Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, said the gaming commission was the most important bill lawmakers were considering aside from the compact itself.

“This is much-needed,” Hutson said Wednesday. “I think it’s going to be something that’s going to be important for years to come.”

Parimutuels have been quiet on the bill so far.

A limited mandate, which could change

It’s not unusual for state gaming commissions to allow tribes, which are sovereign nations, to regulate themselves. Those are terms that are worked out in each state’s gaming compact.

State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, a former casino industry executive who is leading the House’s gaming debate, said the Seminole Tribe does not have a history of hiring dishonest employees or not paying out on people’s bets, areas enforced by gaming regulators.

“You have gaming regulation to get bad guys, and they don’t have a reputation for that,” he said.

The gaming commission will oversee a new Division of Gaming Enforcement, led by a director appointed by commissioners. In total, the 15 positions will be housed within the Office of the Attorney General.

Although the commission will be independent of the attorney general, the Division of Gaming Enforcement will not be independent of commissioners.

That lack of independence “would not be ideal,” said Anthony Cabot, the distinguished fellow of gaming law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

“You don’t want a situation where the police are the judges,” Cabot said.

Nevada, considered the “gold standard” in gaming regulation, and many other states divide gaming police from gaming commissioners, he said.

Florida lawmakers have also given the gaming commission a mandate to simply enforce state laws. Unlike the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, for example, it’s not required to contract with universities to examine the social and economic impacts of casino gambling.

Nevada, which has been regulating casinos longer than any state, also has extensive and experienced staff who analyze the effects of their regulations, noted Kathryn Rand, a professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law.

“That’s why so many states and foreign jurisdictions look to Nevada” as the example of ideal governance, she said.

Fine said that Florida’s position is unique, however. A single casino on the Las Vegas Strip, he said, earns more revenue than the all of state’s parimutuels combined.

He said the Legislature can also go in and change the commission’s mandate, since it’s in a bill that is separate from the compact DeSantis signed with the Tribe.

Fine already expects the commission will change by increasing the number of gaming police beyond the 15 employees in the office.

“I think it’s a good start,” he said.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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