Gov. DeSantis strikes gambling deal with Seminole Tribe; Legislature, Biden administration, must approve

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida reach a gaming compact April 23, 2021. The document is signed by DeSantis and Marcellus W. Osceola , Jr., chairman of the Tribal Council. Credit: Governor's press office.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a deal Friday with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would rewrite Florida’s gambling laws and bring billions to the state through 2030.

But first he needs approval from two important gatekeepers: The Florida Legislature and the Democratic Biden administration. That latter the governor has spent much of his time since the 2020 election berating over its policies on COVID response, immigration policy, and more.

Significantly, the U.S. Department of the Interior is now headed by Biden appointee Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in that role. She likely would be pivotal in deciding on DeSantis’ massive gaming compact.

DeSantis wasn’t first to announce the deal — that fell to Senate President Wilton Simpson, who informed his senators via letter, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who paused floor debate to notify his members.

The governor’s office released details later in the day.

“This historic compact expands economic opportunity, tourism, and recreation, and bolsters the fiscal success of our state in one fell swoop for the benefit of all Floridians and Seminoles alike,” DeSantis said in a written statement.

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida is committed to a mutually-beneficial gaming compact with the State of Florida and looks forward to its approval by the Florida Legislature, the Seminole Tribal Council and the U.S. Department of the Interior,” Marcellus Osceola Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, said in a written statement released through the governor’s office.”

Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer of Broward County welcomed the deal.

“The combination of this revenue and the $10.23 billion provided to us through the American Rescue Plan leaves the Legislature with no excuse not to finally provide quality and affordable health care to the over 1.5 million Floridians who would be eligible for benefits under Medicaid expansion,” he said in a written statement.

“This is a huge win for all Floridians and for the tourism industry, which has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“Not only will the agreement create jobs, but it will also bring more visitors to our great state. Florida’s hotels and restaurants are ready to welcome the many visitors our state will have due to this new compact.”

Here are the basics: The compact would run for 30 years, allow craps and roulette games, allow expansion of the tribe’s casino in Hollywood, and allow statewide sports betting through pari-mutuel operators.

“The agreement will generate the state a minimum of $2.5 billion in new revenue over the next five years and an estimated $6 billion through 2030,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.

Senate President Simpson said: “By comprehensively addressing issues raised for almost a decade, the 2021 compact will maximize revenues for the state and provide new opportunities for both the tribe and Florida’s pari-mutuel businesses by updating Florida law to better reflect the current gaming climate.”

With the Legislature scheduled to adjourn exactly one week from now, both leaders said they have no plan to rush enabling legislation through the sitting session. Rather, they will being the House and Senate back to Tallahassee during the week of May 17.

“I felt very strongly that that is not something that we were willing to take up in the course of the regular session, as we have a lot of policy, important policy to the people of Florida, moving,” House Speaker Sprowls said.

He specifically mentioned continuing negotiations over a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“We want there to be plenty of opportunity for you to be educated on the general topic of gaming as well as the specific provision of the Seminole compact,” Sprowls said.

“While many of these provisions have been discussed for the last several years, I recognize that with a week left in the regular session, we are running short on time,” President Simpson wrote.

The state has been trying to reach a deal between the tribe and competing gambling interests for years without success.

“In my view, we have a responsibility to update our laws to reflect current realities of this heavily-regulated industry and to ensure those laws are properly enforced,” Simson said.

He also explained that dollars contemplated in the new gaming compact are not included in the crafting of the 2021-22 state budget.

“In my view, if the Compact is ratified by the Legislature during the Special Session, these revenues would be used to further buffer our state reserves in the coming year,” Simpson said.