Legislators could discuss a Florida sports betting deal until the alligators come home, and it won’t make a difference for the chances of legalization, according to a lawyer who represents the Seminole Tribe.
“People forget existing Florida law on the books says the governor is the point person for discussions with the tribe for a new compact,” said Marc Dunbar, a gaming attorney who represents the Seminole but does not speak officially on behalf of the tribe.
“While these legislators might have good intentions, until the governor weighs in in earnest, none of this is real. It’s all misinformation by lobbyists trying to justify their fees – ‘Oh, we’re working really hard.’ They’re working on nothing.”
Where Florida sports betting chatter started
Last week, Politico reported that a deal was close between the legislature and the Seminole on a sweeping gambling expansion to include FL sports betting. But Senate president Bill Galvano indicated that the Seminoles were not even involved in the discussions and a deal was not close.
“I wouldn’t expect something to happen from the legislative system,” Dunbar said. “If it happens, it will be because the governor plants a flag, works out a new compact with the tribe, and brings everyone back for a special session to ratify that compact along with systemic changes to gambling in Florida.”
With this being an election year, Dunbar contends it is unlikely that Florida legislators would come back for a special session to talk about gambling.
Agreement discussed by legislature a no-go for tribe
As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, the negotiations currently ongoing in the legislature would provide the Seminoles exclusivity for sports betting in return for giving up its dispute over banked card games.
Dunbar explained why it would be seemingly impossible for Florida sports betting to get the Seminoles to give up their dispute of designated player games.
“If you understand the economics of sports wagering, Florida would have to be as big as Europe for that to make financial sense,” Dunbar said. “The tribe is saving $400 (million) to $500 million a year right now, and no amount of sports betting or mobile sports wagering is going to make up for that.”
Any discussions with the tribe probably have to start with the state enforcing the law on banked games.
“The tribe has all the cards here,” Dunbar said. “That’s the thing I keep reminding everybody. They have the federal court victory and the settlement agreement signed by (former Gov.) Rick Scott. You have to begin from that position of what will the tribe allow, and the tribe has been pretty clear that activity is illegal.”
Lawmakers out of turn on sports wagering?
Because of the passage of a ballot proposition supported by the Seminoles in 2018, any gambling expansion in the state not limited to tribal casinos, or the lottery must be initiated by voters.
In other words, the optics aren’t the best for a Florida sports betting discussion in the legislature that doesn’t involve the tribe.
Dunbar said that he understands why legislators want legal Florida sports betting to supplement the state’s tourism economy.
“A number of members would like to see something happen, probably most of the legislators, because they realize this basic truth – Florida is a tourist economy and sports wagering is a supplement of a tourist economy because of the draw.
“Vegas receives a nice spike around the Super Bowl and March Madness because it’s a tourist state. Florida could carve out a very nice regional niche, even international niche if it wanted to, with the destination hotel type venues throughout the state like the Hard Rock.”
The legislature will be involved in approving any tribal compact, but it can’t drive the discussion without the tribe.
“The governor needs to sit with the tribe, sovereign to sovereign, negotiate not just the framework but an actual compact that can be brought to the legislature, who can say yes we like it or no we don’t. That’s what led to the compact the first time and that’s the only way this plays out.”
So where’s the governor on FL sports betting?
Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in 2019 but has yet to deal with the mess he inherited involving gambling in Florida.
“The governor indicated he’d like to see something done,” Dunbar said. “Why he’s not rolling his sleeves up and getting involved has to do with his priorities. The governor did not campaign on gambling. He campaigned on a significant environmental platform and a major pro-business platform. Not a week goes by where he doesn’t make a big announcement that touches on some element of those.”
There was some urgency in the legislature last year to reach an accord with the Seminoles in order to keep the tribe’s gaming payments to the state coming.
How much money is at stake in Florida?
A US District Court judge ruled in 2016 that the state breached tribal exclusivity for banked card games by allowing pari-mutuel facilities to use “designated player” games. As a result, the tribe has been under no obligation to make its approximately $350 million revenue sharing payment to the state — an agreement with then-Gov. Rick Scott extended the payment to May of last year.
Sen. Wilton Simpson met with the Seminoles to work out key components of a compact agreement, but DeSantis declined to finish off the process. He said he couldn’t enter the state into a 31-year agreement without further review. The tribe then followed through on stopping its payment.
“The Florida economy is rocking along. So that half-billion the tribe is not paying the state, while that might be a big number to a lot of states, when we have $90 billion and a lot of surplus each year, there’s no pressure for the governor to plug budget holes,” Dunbar said.
Hope for next year with Florida sports betting
Without money coming in from the Seminoles for gaming, there was some bravado coming from legislators entering this session that the state could pursue other opportunities in the industry.
However, the Seminole have shown any such sentiments were folly. While Rep. Jeff Brandes‘ bill to legalize sports betting for the lottery has gone nowhere, a bill that would prohibit the lottery from authorizing games in which the winner is chosen on the basis of the activities or outcome of a sporting event is advancing.
The legislature is scheduled to adjourn on March 13.
Dunbar credited Simpson with setting up a framework that could be brought to the governor last year. He thinks the efforts to work out an agreement with the Seminoles will get a boost next session after Simpson becomes Senate president.
“What we saw in the discussion with Simpson is he was trying his earnest to be an honest broker, and that’s something the tribe certainly appreciated,” Dunbar said. “That’s how to start a relationship. He started on the right foot with the tribe. He understands the issues, wants to get it to the right place and, I think during his presidency, he could help finally get something across the finish line.”