Florida lawmakers consider gambling pact with Seminole Tribe
By BRENDAN FARRINGTON and BOBBY CAINA CALVAN
TALLAHASSEE (AP) — The Florida Legislature opened a special session on Monday to consider an agreement signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis with the Seminole Tribe that could legalize sports gambling and bring the state billions of dollars in revenue.
The session opened little more than two weeks after the Legislature’s annual 60-day session ended. House Speaker Chris Sprowls announced to members that DeSantis and the tribe amended the original compact signed April 23 to remove language requiring the state to negotiate a potential deal to allow online casino games. The tribe also agreed not to begin sports betting until Oct. 15.
Republican Rep. Randy Fine, who chairs the House Select Committee on Gaming, said several lawmakers had concerns that the now deleted language could lead to online gambling, such as being able to play slot machines on smartphones.
“That was by far the No. 1 issue. People were not comfortable with agreeing to online slot machines from your couch,” Fine said. “There were many members that were like, ‘I don’t care what else is in the compact, if there’s a path to online slot machines, I’m out.'”
If approved by the Legislature and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees tribal gambling operations, the 30-year agreement will allow the tribe to offer sports betting at its casinos and to operate sports wagering at horse tracks, jai-alai frontons and former dog tracks for a share of the income. Online sports betting operated by the tribe also would be allowed.
The tribe would also be allowed to introduce craps and roulette at its seven casinos, including the popular Hard Rock casinos near Fort Lauderdale and Tampa. The state would get at least $2.5 billion from the tribe over the first five years and an estimated $6 billion by 2030.
DeSantis has previously said he expects the pact to create 2,200 new jobs.
John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, which successfully won passage in 2018 of a ballot measure giving voters exclusive authority to expand casino-style gambling, said the compact would amount to a “proliferation of gambling” in Florida.
“I don’t think that’s what the people of Florida wanted when two years ago they went to the polls and said we want to lock the door and hold the key,” Sowinski said.
“We have long supported the idea of a compact,” he said, adding: “A compact, yes. This compact, no.”
There is no question a lot of money is riding on the compact. James Allen, the chief executive officer of Seminole Gaming, was especially pointed on that score.
“By not voting for the compact, the state is walking away from a minimum of $4 billion between now and 2030,” Allen told the Senate Appropriations Committee, which began reviewing a package of bills that would implement the compact.
The Seminoles had backed Amendment 3, but that backing was widely seen as a way for the Tribe to preserve its gaming dominance in the country’s third-most populous state.
The Tribe contends that it is not subject to the provisions of Amendment 3, with Allen suggesting that an understanding was made “before we ever wrote a check for $22 million” to help win passage of Amendment 3.
“We may be naive but we’re not crazy,” Allen said.
The Legislature wanted time to consider the agreement outside on it’s own, rather than try to approve the 75-page agreement as it was wrapping up budget negotiations and other major issues during the session that ended April 30.
Unlike the regular session, when the Capitol was closed to the public and lobbyists because of the coronavirus pandemic, the building was open to all. Many people and lawmakers were maskless and social distancing was less of a concern.
The Senate and House quickly opened and adjourned their sessions and committees met later Monday to consider bills related to the compact. The Senate planned to go into session again Tuesday, and Sprowls said the goal would be for the House to vote on Wednesday and then go home.