At the end of April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis reached an agreement with the state’s Seminole Tribe that could change gambling in the state forever. Hard Rock International owner, the Seminole tribe, and the deal they’ve made in the state could herald the most significant gambling expansion for many years. However, anticipations are that the battle is not yet over. Legal challenges are expected, although state lawyers do expect to be able to deflect them.
Gambling has been possible in Florida for many years in the form of horse racing and jai-alai. Poker has also been added to many facilities over the last couple of decades. Before Jan 1, 2020, dog racing was also permitted, although voters did ban this gambling activity in a 2018 ballot initiative.
Traditionally, this highly conservative and religious state has been suspicious of casino gambling, and its legislators strongly opposed any expansion. That doesn’t seem to put some high-ranking officials off, however. For example, Senate President Wilton Simpson wrote in a memo to his members last week, “The fact remains, Florida has a significant gaming footprint, and I think if we are going to regulate these activities, it should be within a structure that is fair and equitable to all parties.”
The newly inked deal is being touted as “historic”. If the legislature approves it, it will authorize sports betting and full-blown Las Vegas-style gambling, including craps and roulette, at the tribe’s seven casinos across Florida. It would also allow the Seminoles to add three additional facilities to their Hard Rock casino in Hollywood and permit the tribe to contract with a third party, such as Las Vegas casino giants MGM, Sands, or Caesars, to operate the resort.
The state stands to gain financially from such a deal because the Seminoles would pay into the government coffers a minimum of $500 million per year. Should profits increase at the casinos, this amount wound increase in proportion.
This deal between the tribe and Florida state has been going back and forth for five years now. There have been failed negotiations and legal battles between both parties. What the deal means is that the Seminoles would be sole operators of sports betting for a minimum of 30 years.
If the deal is enacted, any Florida residents aged 21 or over will be able to place a bet via mobile apps routed via the Seminole reservation. The choice of games to bet on would include collegiate and professional sports teams, individual performance, Olympic competition, and motorsports events.
What Happens When the Deal is Tested in Court?
A critical part of the state’s argument will center around the mobile component, should it be tested in court. In 2018, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring voter approval of any gambling expansion in the state. Anti-gambling campaigners will likely argue that this new deal violates this amendment.
The argument expected from state lawyers is that the deal doesn’t amount to gambling expansion in Florida. It is merely an expansion of gambling on Seminole sovereign land. The backbone of this argument would be that the servers for the statewide mobile betting service are located on Seminole land.
Such an argument conflicts with a 2016 federal court ruling against the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel. The Nation launched an online bingo site in California in 2014 on the grounds that bets were being processed on its territory. The State of California and the federal government sued the Nation, and ultimately, the court ruled that a bet must be legal not just where it is received but where it is initiated.
Despite this conflicting ruling, Governor DeSantis is feeling very optimistic. The Miami Herald reported him as saying, “There are all kinds of arguments people will throw out there, but … this is operated by the Tribe, operated on tribal lands, and I think it satisfies Amendment 3. If somebody wants to contest that, both the Tribe and the state will be defending the agreement that we have here today.’’
This year’s round of regular sessions ended on April 30. However, legislative leaders are planning to hold a special session during the week of May 17 to consider the proposed compact. During the special session, lawmakers are also expected to consider creating a gaming oversight commission.
What happens over the next few weeks will be crucial, and we’ll try to keep you informed.