Gaming companies betting $62 million on 2022 Florida ballot

Gambling interests are pouring money in ahead of a new law that caps campaign contributions.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida owns the Guitar Hotel near Hollywood.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida owns the Guitar Hotel near Hollywood. [ MIKE STOCKER | South Florida Sun Sentinel ]
Published July 13, 2021|Updated July 14, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Spurred by a massive gambling deal for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, three out-of-state gaming giants — Las Vegas Sands, FanDuel and DraftKings — have put $37 million into what appears to be an effort to front load multiple ballot efforts to influence the future of sports betting and casino gambling in Florida.

A fourth company, owner of Florida-based Magic City Casino, has created a political committee called People Against Regulatory Legislation Addressing You (PARLAY) in June and gave it $15 million for purposes yet to be determined.

And, the Seminole Tribe, in an effort to counter measures that could undermine its gambling deal with the state, has injected $10 million into a political committee, Voters in Control Inc., to influence issues on the 2022 ballot.

The sudden dump of nearly $62 million in political contributions from a single industry is an unprecedented amount in Florida but was the result of a new law passed by legislators and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this year that limited contributions for signature-gathering efforts on ballot initiatives to $3,000 per entity beginning July 1. In an attempt to avoid being constrained by the cap on contributions, the gambling interests front loaded their contributions by writing generous checks before the effective date of the law.

Related: FanDuel, DraftKings propose Florida ballot initiative to expand sports betting

Now that the powerful gaming entities have political committees with millions of dollars that can be used ahead of the 2022 election, details on how they hope to operate or break into the lucrative gaming market in Florida are coming into view:

  • The international sports betting giants, FanDuel and DraftKings, want their own online sports betting deal to be approved by Florida voters.
  • The Seminole Tribe is spending money to defend the 30-year gaming compact reached with DeSantis, which is pending approval by federal regulators.
  • Las Vegas Sands, a behemoth in the global casino industry, is interested in breaking into the Florida market.
  • The owner of Miami’s Magic City Casino, West Flagler Associates, wants to be included in discussions that lead to changes in the state’s gaming industry that impact parimutuel interests.

FanDuel and DraftKings each wrote $10 million checks to Florida Education Champions, the political committee behind a 2022 ballot initiative asking voters to authorize online sports betting at all Florida parimutuels, professional sports stadiums, and anywhere else in the state using a mobile sports betting platform.

The two international sports betting giants were iced out of a 30-year, $500 million-a-year gaming compact reached by the governor and the Seminole Tribe of Florida and ratified by Florida lawmakers in May. The deal is pending approval from the U.S. Department of Interior, which governs tribal gaming. Federal regulators have 45 days after the compact was submitted to make a decision. The governor’s office said the compact was mailed to the agency on June 3, meaning a decision could come as early as this month.

Related: Florida legalizes sports betting but hurdles remain

But the surprise player to emerge Monday, the day campaign finance disclosure reports were due at the Florida Division of Elections, is the Las Vegas Sands Corp.

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The new law they all attempted to avoid never took effect, however. On July 1, a federal judge temporarily blocked the cap on contributions for petition drives after the American Civil Liberties Union and three political committees sued to overturn the contributions cap, arguing it would suffocate the public’s ability to amend the state Constitution through the ballot-initiative process. The state is expected to appeal.

But the arrival of so much cash into Florida’s political coffers to expand gambling underscores a new reality: The state’s international tourist market has enormous allure for the global gaming industry. A 2018 law requires gambling expansion to get statewide voter approval. And the ease with which the gambling compact between the tribe and the state was approved by the conservative Florida Legislature, which until now had been gambling-averse, marks a shift in attitude in the Sunshine State.

“Every time there is an expansion of gambling in Florida, it leads to more expansion of gambling,’' said John Sowinski, director of No Casinos, which ran the Amendment 3 campaign in 2018 that made it illegal to expand gambling in Florida without statewide voter approval. “The compact has opened the floodgates to everybody getting everything now.”

But to get a measure on the ballot in time for the 2022 elections will be an enormous undertaking. Florida legislators have prohibited petition gathering companies from paying signature gatherers by the signature. There are a limited number of companies that are capable of doing the signature-gathering work. And the record turnout in the 2020 elections means that more signatures are needed by the February deadline than ever before.

Las Vegas Sands bids on Florida

Las Vegas Sands is controlled by Miriam Adelson, the wife of the company’s late CEO, Sheldon Adelson. The couple had been generous, and early, supporters of DeSantis.

In March, Las Vegas Sands sold its Las Vegas properties and announced it is looking to expand into other states. The company has long had an interest in getting into Florida’s casino market but never could persuade the Florida Legislature to expand casinos licenses, and it did not hire a lobbyist during the last legislative session.

At the end of June, Las Vegas Sands gave $17 million to a newly-formed political committee, Florida Voters in Charge, which has yet to explain its intentions, according to disclosures reported by the Florida Division of Elections on Monday. .

“We are contemplating various options with no intention to violate the recently passed compact/revenue sharing agreement,’' said Sarah Bascom, the group’s spokesperson.

“Our initial donor, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, has long been interested in Florida and we look forward to sharing more about the Florida Voters in Charge effort in the coming weeks and months.”

Sands is thought to be interested in running a casino Florida either by partnering with or buying out an existing permit holder. In early March, Miriam Adelson flew to Tallahassee and met with DeSantis as the governor was meeting with Florida-based parimutuel owners about their role in the gaming compact, according to her private plane details obtained by the Miami Herald and interviews with people involved in the meetings.

The gaming compact signed by the Seminole Tribe and the governor left the door open to allowing voters to approve additional casinos in Florida. It stated that as long as a new casino was 100 miles from any of the tribe’s casinos and has the tribe’s consent (and in Miami-Dade and Broward counties if the new casino is not within 15 miles of the tribe’s Hard Rock Casino near Hollywood) it would not violate the gaming compact.

The most likely venues for casino expansion in South Florida are considered to be the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach and the Trump Doral Resort in Doral, both communities whose local governments have passed ordinances that prohibit casinos. The Genting Group, which bought the Miami Herald site in 2011 with hopes of opening a waterfront resort-hotel casino, is believed to be interested in Trump’s resort in Doral.

Adelson has also engaged in talks with parimutuels elsewhere in Florida, including Melbourne Greyhound Track and the Best Bet Jacksonville, both of them clients of lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who in the past has also represented Las Vegas Sands.

Unlike the 2010 compact between the tribe and the state, the one negotiated by DeSantis allows an existing license to be transferred without violating the compact. In order to obtain a license to offer sports betting or casino games at those venues, Adelson would need statewide approval from voters under Amendment 3.

Iarossi said that they formed Florida Voters in Charge to pursue signatures once they decide what the gambling expansion proposal will look like.

“There’s ongoing talks but there are multiple versions of the language that can be filed,’' he said. “We haven’t filed any language yet.”

Tribe opposes sports betting on ballot

The Seminole Tribe’s spokesperson, Gary Bitner, would not comment on the Las Vegas Sands operation except to say: “Seminole Tribe and Seminole Gaming want to know more about it.”

However, he said the tribe is vigorously opposed to the constitutional amendment proposed by FanDuel and DraftKings that would legalize sports betting outside of the tribe’s agreement with the state.

“This is millions of out-of-state corporate dollars to try and manipulate the people of Florida, who are smarter than that,’' Bitner said. “They think they can buy their way into the state. Our team intends to use our Florida dollars to protect the interests of the people of Florida.”

If the initiative gets enough signatures and makes it on the 2022 ballot, and if it is approved by 60 percent of voters, it would undermine the portion of the agreement that gives the tribe the opportunity to enter into agreements with existing parimutuels to operate sports betting at their facilities by having all transactions go through the tribe’s servers.

In addition to giving the tribe the exclusive opportunity to operate the digital sports books in Florida for the next 30 years, the gaming deal also opens the door for a huge expansion of the tribe’s gaming empire, which now consists of seven casinos, including the Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos near Hollywood and Tampa.

The agreement, if approved, also would give the tribe the exclusive right to operate craps and roulette at all of its casinos and to build three more casinos on existing tribal property east of Florida’s Turnpike in Broward County.

In return for all those components, the tribe would give the state about $500 million a year in revenue-sharing payments. If the sports betting component is ruled unconstitutional by the courts or rejected by federal regulators, or if a constitutional amendment is passed authorizing sports betting outside of a tribal server, the Seminole Tribe will be allowed to reduce its annual payments to the state. Tribe gaming officials estimate the reduced amount would be about $100 million annually.

Magic City owners want a role

The constitutionality of the sports betting language in the compact is the target of a federal lawsuit filed by the owner of Magic City Casino, West Flagler Associates, which is owned by the Havenick family, one of Florida’s oldest parimutuel companies.

Related: Florida lawsuit challenges new Seminole gambling compact

The Havenicks argue that the agreement authorizing sports betting outside of tribal lands in Florida is in violation of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the lawsuit asks the court to enjoin implementation of sports betting under the deal with the state.

In an effort to protect its interests, West Flagler Associates created its political committee, People Against Regulatory Legislation Addressing You, chaired by Isadore “Izzy” Havenick, vice president for public affairs.

“The committee was formed in order to make sure our family business and other multi-generational family businesses are not excluded from any conversations that could cannibalize us,” Havenick said. “We know there are national companies out there that see the potential of our great state, and we believe we should all work together to give the best product to the people of Florida in an inclusionary fashion.”

In an interview, Havenick did not deny the $15 million stashed in the political committee could potentially be used to draft a constitutional amendment that could relate to other parimutuel interests. His late father, Fred Havenick, helped launch a campaign that led voters to approve slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in 2004.

Record contributions

The multi-million political contributions from Las Vegas Sands, FanDuel, DraftKings and West Flagler Associates are so far the largest contributions made during Florida’s 2022 election cycle, according to campaign finance records.

Only two political contributions in the past decade have been larger than the ones made by the gaming companies. In 2014, former Gov. Rick Scott wrote a $27.5 million check to his political committee, Let’s Get to Work. And in 2018, Marsy’s Law for All Foundation spent $18 million to fund the ballot initiative that created a bill of rights for crime victims.

It takes money and time to get ballot measures approved in Florida. Although Amendment 3, voter approval of gambling expansion, was approved by 71 percent of voters in 2018, the effort took supporters five years and $46 million.

A spokesperson for Florida Education Champions, which is supported by FanDuel and DraftKings, said the companies plan to continue raising money while the law limiting contributions is challenged in court.

“The Florida Education Champions committee will continue to comply with current law,” said Christina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the group.

Clarification: This story was updated on Wednesday, July 14, to be more precise about the possible location of additional casinos for the Seminole Tribe in Broward County and the language in the compact regarding what happens if sports betting is rejected by the courts or federal government or authorized in a different fashion by a constitutional amendment.