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The Bets On Gambling Deal Surviving Likely Legal Challenges, And Early Democrats Position for '22 Races

 A slot machine player at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, FL.
Emily Michot
Miami Herald
A slot machine player at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, FL. A new gambling deal with the state would allow the tribe to add sports betting, craps and roulette.

Place your bets. Florida lawmakers have okayed a new gambling deal but will it survive expected legal challenges? And Democrats are already starting the 2022 election campaign.

When the University of Florida plays the University of Georgia in late October for their annual football rivalry, you will be able to place a legal bet on which team you think will win — thanks to a new deal between the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe.

If the deal is okayed by the federal government, and isn’t held up from the expected legal challenges, you will be able to legally bet on the Gators or the Bulldogs.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Local journalists are working hard to keep you informed on the latest developments across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

This week, lawmakers held a special session focused on gambling. It was spurred on by a deal in late April between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe. The two agreed to a new gambling compact giving the tribe exclusive rights to certain kinds of gambling in exchange for paying the state billions of dollars.

It could have Florida becoming the largest state to legalize sports betting.

"We've proposed a structure that, if it stands up to legal scrutiny, will allow sports betting in the state of Florida," said Republican state Rep. Randy Fine, who represents Brevard County. "But there is a reasonable chance that courts, for one reason or another, will say that the sports betting component of this deal are not legal."

Fine voted to approve the deal. He supports bringing sports betting to Florida but anticipates the current form of sports betting, under the just-approved compact with the Seminole Tribe, may not withstand a court challenge. If a Floridian is allowed to make a wager on sports from anywhere in the state, that may not be seen as conforming to federal law, which allows for gambling on Indian lands.

Supporters of the agreement say because the Internet servers accepting the bets would be on the Seminole reservation, it does not violate the federal rules.

"One could argue, if I'm making a bet from my couch at home, I'm not actually on Indian gaming lands," said Fine.

Opponents are also expected to argue the new compact violates a 2018 voter-approved amendment requiring any expansion of gambling to be put to voters.

Fine doesn't see it that way.

"The constitutional amendment explicitly excludes casino gambling on tribal lands, and this would only be on tribal lands," he said.

"This compact represents what would be the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida history," said John Sowinski with the No Casinos group. He helped write the 2018 amendment.

"In order for a form of gambling to be legal, even on a tribal reservation, it must be legal within the state for any person to participate in. And so even the addition of craps and roulette is legally dubious without a referendum," Sowinski said.

But Fine doesn't see the new games at existing casinos as an expansion.

"When they put a new cereal on the shelf that you couldn't buy before, that's not an expansion of the supermarket," he said.

The deal also allows for three new casinos to be built on Seminole land near its Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood. The tribe owns six casinos in Florida. The new deal also bans the tribe from interfering if the state decides to grant a gambling license to a facility more than 15 miles away from its flagship casino — the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Broward County.

Former President Donald Trump's Doral resort is about 18 miles away.

"We have not authorized the movement of these licenses anywhere to President Trump's Doral facility or anywhere else for that matter," said Fine, adding that he's not confident the Legislature could move a gambling license through. "I'm not sure that could even be done without a citizens initiative. Amendment 3 really tied our hands."

The deal is expected to mean hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state. A previous compact with the tribe generated more than $200 million a year while the agreement was enforced. This new deal could mean $500 million a year for the first five years.

"What's important for people to know about this compact, though, is the state is going to receive hundreds of millions of dollars, $1.5 million every day whether sports betting is ultimately legal or not," Fine said.

"I think it's probably the only industry that promotes itself as a target for taxation," said Sowinski. "These are not all new dollars to the state because a dollar spent on gambling is a dollar not spent and taxed somewhere else in our economy."

2022 Positioning

Florida’s Democratic Party took a beating in 2020. President Trump easily won the state. The down-ballot races were even worse. Democrats lost a majority of the state House races, as well as every battleground race for the state Senate. Now though, the party is repositioning for 2022 and says it has the candidates to beat sitting Republicans.

Central Florida Rep. Val Demings is expected to challenge Marco Rubio for his Senate seat. Fellow Rep. Stephanie Murphy reportedly is considering a run for Rubio’s seat as well. And two Democrats are expected to run in the primary to try to unseat Gov. Ron DeSantis. Rep. Charlie Crist has already declared he’s in the race to win the office that he held seven years ago as a Republican, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is expected to announce next week.

"Neither race is going to be easy for the Democrats for a variety of reasons — everything from where is the state trending to the fact that incumbents are always hard to beat," said Gary Fineout, reporter for Politico.

Democrats lost the governor's race and a contest for the U.S. Senate in 2018 by less than one half of 1% each. Bill Nelson lost his U.S. Senate re-election to then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2018 by 10,000 votes. Ron DeSantis won the governor's race against Andrew Gillum by fewer than 33,000 votes. It represented losses for a traditional Democrat and one who was seen as leaning more progressive.

"Do you make a play for the center — come up with a candidate who will appeal to independents, who could play a pivotal role? Or do you get a candidate who excites your base?" Fineout said.

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.