It’s that time again. The moment every few years when the state considers how much more gambling to allow. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently hammered out a new deal with the Seminole Tribe, and the Legislature meets in special session beginning Monday to consider the proposed compact. The deal would legalize mobile sports betting, a major expansion to the state’s gaming repertoire, one that brings a host of challenges. A revolution of this magnitude cries out for more than lawmakers’ stamp of approval. Voters — through a statewide referendum — should ultimately decide the issue.
The 30-year deal would allow anyone in Florida at least 21 years old to place bets on sporting events from collegiate competitions to major pro leagues to the Olympics. Gamblers could use their phones or special kiosks to bet on the outcome of games, but also make what are called “prop” bets, things that happen during a competition that don’t directly affect the outcome — the winner of the pre-game coin toss, which team scores first, whether the quarterback throws the ball to start the second half.
The bets would flow through the Seminole Tribe, the exclusive operator of the proposed digital sports books. For the privilege, the Tribe agreed to pay the state at least $500 million a year, an amount that rises as the market and profits grow. The proposed deal expands on a prior deal that granted the Tribe exclusivity on lucrative blackjack and other banked card games at its casinos.
Sports betting is big business. And legal or not, it’s going on in the state already. DeSantis makes a solid point when he says that by formalizing a deal the state can regulate betting activities and share in the revenue. But sports betting doesn’t come free. The social headaches — addiction, in particular — are real. Sports bettors are also more likely than other kinds of gamblers to develop a problem, according to some of the burgeoning research. The bets can be made nearly instantaneously, which can lead to rapid losses. And it’s also hard to keep kids away. A British government survey in 2018 found that half of 16-year-olds had gambling apps on their phones, and the 2020 survey showed that 9 percent of children between 11 and 16 years old gambled with their own money during the previous week.
Expanding gambling does not guarantee a vibrant economy. Just look at Atlantic City. In fact, be wary of anyone touting how much an expansion of sports betting will inject into our local economies. Most bettors in Florida would be locals — not tourists — spending their discretionary income. If they weren’t making bets, they would likely spend the money on other local entertainment, like movies, restaurants, bars or theme parks. Either way, the money gets injected into the local economy.
Some lawmakers will try to sell sports betting under the guise of generating more revenue for schools, scholarships or to fight climate change or to pay state troopers a better salary — whatever cause they think might be popular. They might even mean it. But remember that they can change their minds. They can shift the funds to other priorities, as they did with the money from the state lottery, which was promised to enhance education spending. And lawmakers routinely use money earmarked for affordable housing for other purposes. The list goes on. The point being that money is fungible — and lawmakers know it.
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment requiring statewide voter authorization of gambling expansions. Lawyers and others argue whether the amendment applies to sports betting. If the governor and lawmakers sidestep a statewide vote on the issue, lawsuits will surely follow. And taxpayers could pay the bill. But the legal semantics and technicalities belie the larger point: Voters wanted a direct say when the state contemplates expanding gambling. Sports betting would be a massive expansion. So let the voters decide whether sports betting is right for Florida.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.