“Even the mere possibility … was unacceptable,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls said.
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Minutes into a special session Monday on gambling, Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls said he and Republican leadership had gotten future online and mobile casino gambling nixed from a proposed deal between the state and Seminole Tribe.
And sports betting, still a go, now will not start till Oct. 15 at the tribe’s seven casinos, he added.
“I realized many shared the same concern as I, that some language in the compact could be construed to lead to the backdoor expansion of online gaming,” he told House members. “Even the mere possibility of this was unacceptable.”
The Palm Harbor Republican said he, Rules Committee chair Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, and Select Committee on Gaming chair Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, “engaged directly with the Seminole Tribe,” who agreed to strike that language.
A “miscellaneous” section at the end of the 75-page gambling compact, if approved, would have allowed the state and tribe to negotiate yet another deal after three years to open up even more types of gambling to online and mobile play.
The state stands to collect $2.5 billion over five years under terms of the 30-year compact – likely the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida history.
Monday’s move may have been designed to ease concerns among some lawmakers about the gambling deal. But it did nothing to silence several outside organizations opposed, including John Sowinski, head of the No Casinos anti-gambling expansion group.
Sowinski led the 2018 Amendment 3 campaign, approved by 71% of Florida voters, which gives voters the “exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling.”
He told the Senate Appropriations Committee later Monday that the compact signed by DeSantis and the tribe would “opens doors” to new casino gambling: “The people of Florida said we want to lock the door and we hold the key,” Sowinski said.
In another attempt to placate opponents, lawmakers endorsed the decision by the tribe and DeSantis to delay the start of sports betting in Florida till mid-October.
That assumes the deal is passed by lawmakers this week and meets the approval of federal Indian gambling regulators under U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who ultimately must OK the agreement.
Sprowls said the delay until fall will “assure the product is launched with appropriate safeguards.”
Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International, later told reporters, “We were never prepared to launch sports betting” sooner in Florida, saying the needed “infrastructure” wasn’t in place yet.
“We want to make sure we get it right,” he added. The tribe already has a sports book in its Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. and takes bets online and through an app in New Jersey.
Legislation would create Gaming Control Commission
House and Senate committees spent Monday advancing a handful of bills aimed at establishing the new compact and other matters related to the expansion, including creating a new Florida Gaming Control Commission. That panel, a five-member appointed commission with regulatory powers over the industry, would be similar to the Public Service Commission that regulates the state’s utility industry.
House and Senate leaders said they expected the special session to wrap up by Wednesday. Based on testimony during committees Monday, the session looked certain to result in approval of the compact — although lawsuits challenging the agreement are almost equally bound to emerge.
DeSantis and the tribe are looking to cash in following a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision which allowed sports betting beyond the limits of Nevada and with it, access to the billions of dollars it could generate.
More than 20 states now offer some kind of sports betting. But to sidestep the voter-approved Amendment 3 requiring casino expansion to go before voters, DeSantis’ compact offer grants the Seminole Tribe the right to host sports betting at its seven casinos, and adding three more on tribal property in coming years.
The Seminole Tribe, a sovereign nation, is exempt from the requirements of Amendment 3.
As part of the deal, Florida pari-mutuel sites have been won over. They’ve long struggled with a dwindling fan base for horse-racing and jai-alai, with dog tracks now “decoupled” and not offering any racing.
Under the proposal, the Seminole Tribe would run the sports book for online betting in Florida, with the pari-mutuels contracting with the tribe. The tracks and frontons would pull in 60% of the amount bet through their facilities, with the rest going to the tribe, under terms of the proposed compact.
The tribe has abandoned its longtime insistence that the state ban pari-mutuels from operating designated-player card games, which is a version of blackjack and poker. A standoff over these games has killed earlier attempts to broker a compact, but now the kind of money expected from sports betting appears to have erased concerns about card games.
The compact before lawmakers would replace the 2010 compact reached by then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist with the tribe. The Seminoles stopped its annual payments of roughly $350 million in revenue sharing in 2019.
The tribe has argued that lucrative “designated player” games now available at many card rooms eat into blackjack games now offered exclusively at its seven casinos.
The smooth pace of the special session’s opening day hints at the power DeSantis has over fellow Republicans, who form an overwhelming majority in the Legislature. House and Senate Democrats are mostly from South Florida counties which generally support gambling so they, too, are on board with the proposed compact.
In the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was the lone ‘no’ vote against all of the half-dozen gambling bills it advanced.
”This is the tribe’s dream deal. I don’t know if this is Florida’s dream deal,” Brandes said. “This is everything they wanted, except internet gaming, which I think they could easily get in the future.
“But ultimately, this is a deal that will exclude innovation from the market place…We are as the state of Florida, providing a monopoly to one vendor and I fundamentally disagree with that,” he added.
The special session continues Tuesday.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport. Reach Jim Rosica at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JimRosicaFL.
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