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Sports betting in Florida is, without question, a complicated issue.
Any attempted expansion of gambling likely needs backing from the Seminole tribe, which operates the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood. A 2018 voter-backed amendment also gave the public the right to approve the expansion of casino gambling, further strengthening the tribe’s hand.
Sen. Jeff Brandes decided to wade into a potentially deep swamp last week by pre-filing legislation to legalize sports betting through the state lottery.
“I did some research and saw that 19 states already have authorized sports betting and Florida is not one of them,” Brandes said in a phone interview. “But we know a lot of illicit sports betting already is taking place in Florida, largely in an unregulated place in the state, and there’s an opportunity for Florida to enhance liberty and freedom by allowing sports betting to take place through the lottery.”
The Seminole tribe operates seven Indian gaming casinos in Florida. In the last legislative session, Florida sports betting was part of compact discussions between the legislature and the tribe.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, who will take over as Senate president following next year’s elections, worked out a tentative agreement with the Seminole. It would have paid the state at least $500 million a year in return for pledging to shut down the designated card games offered at state parimutuels, among other items.
However, Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to sign off on the deal.
In response, the Seminole told the governor they would stop making annual payments of about $350 million to the state “until the illegal banked card game issue is resolved.”
Brandes isn’t exactly going rogue in exploring an alternate direction for Florida sports betting. With no money coming in from the Seminole, legislators are rethinking the state’s approach to gambling.
“What we need to start doing is looking at what’s available to us on the private side of the equation, versus just the compact, Senate President Bill Galvano told The News Service of Florida.
The state didn’t include any money from the tribe in its budget proposal for next year.
Brandes’ sports betting proposal is the first in Florida to peg the lottery as operator and regulator. Previously, any effort centered on the Seminole, who believe they have an exclusive right to offer Florida sports betting.
“What we see around the country is a lot of states allow lotteries to do sports betting, so we don’t think sports betting is like a traditional table game normally done through casinos,” Brandes said. “We think that’s pretty strong evidence that it can be done through the lottery system and doesn’t need to be done exclusively through the tribes.”
Brandes added that a major feature of the legislation is that revenue from FL sports betting through the lottery will go to education spending.
“We think the lottery is the right mechanism to run sports betting in Florida,” Brandes said. “It provides the most transparent, most safe, and a level of certainty and control not currently available through the compact.”
Last year, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that requires any casino gambling to go on the ballot, taking control of gaming expansion away from the legislature.
The language specifies that the measure does not apply to the Seminoles or lottery. Because of this, Marc Dunbar, a government relations and gaming attorney who calls the Seminole a client, earlier this year told Legal Sports Report that the only way sports betting could be offered without going in front of voters was by the tribe or lottery.
While the lottery has a good claim to conduct Florida sports betting, it’s less clear whether it would be permitted to license others. Brandes’ bills authorize the lottery to both offer sports betting and issue licenses to operate online sportsbooks for $100,000 annually, plus 15% of revenue.
“We believe the lottery is exempt,” Brandes said. “Lotteries operate sports betting in many states and therefore this falls outside Amendment 3. But even if it is found to be within Amendment 3 and ultimately voters need to decide, I have no problem having that conversation as long as it’s run through the lottery.”
Florida has a short 60-day legislative session, starting Jan. 14 and ending March 13. There could be additional sports betting bills introduced.
Representatives in the House previously indicated to LSR that they want to look at the issue next session. With the exception of committee bills, legislation needs to be introduced by the end of the first day of the session.
Brandes asserted that he’s not looking to exclude the Seminole or parimutuel facilities from having FL sports betting and that the tribe could work out a deal with the lottery or state to participate.
“The goal of this legislation is to start the conversation,” Brandes said. “I think there will be many iterations of the legislation over the next three months.”