FL Legislature opens gambling special session by nixing possibility of online casino games statewide

Poker chips
Poker chips. CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

In the first day of a special legislative session on gambling in Florida, a big part of the deal appears to have been taken off of the table.

A draft copy of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida envisioned the possibly that in three years the parties might agree to allow statewide play of casino-type games, including roulette, craps, and blackjack.

But House Speaker Chris Sprowls announced as the Legislature opened its special session on Monday that he’d gotten the governor and tribe to drop that language. He said he and other House Republicans had feared it would open a “backdoor” to statewide casino gambling.

Sports betting and fantasy gaming, distinguished from online casino games played against other players, would still be authorized statewide under the compact. But the onset of this type of game would be delayed until Oct. 15, “ensuring that the product will be launched with appropriate safeguards,” Sprowls said.

Otherwise, they would have begun when the U.S. Department of the Interior ratified the compact.

“I am pleased to report that I am holding directly in my hand an addendum to the Seminole Compact, signed today by the Seminole Tribe of Florida and our governor, Ron DeSantis, which deletes from the compact any conversation on statewide online casino gaming in the state of Florida,” Sprowls said, to applause from Republicans.

Neither DeDantis nor Senate President Wilton Simpson had immediate comment on the development.

Sprowls and Simpson reserved five days for debate on the compact, but Sprowls said Monday he plans to wrap up deliberations on Wednesday. A special committee in the House and the Appropriations Committee in the Senate were set to begin debate on pieces of legislation to enact the compact Monday afternoon.

“Online gaming is out of the mix for right now,” said Broward Democrat Evan Jenne, co-leader of his party’s House caucus.

“Especially for those folks who didn’t want to see an expansion of gaming, I think that’s where a lot of the consternation came from, and I think a lot of that falls to the side now. As far as passage looks, I think that improves its odds greatly,” Jenne said.

Meanwhile, former Gov. Jeb Bush came out against the deal in a written statement.

“South Florida is on a roll! Our great quality of life and an incredible surge of job creators to our region have put us on a path for rising income and prosperity for many more of our neighbors. At the time when our economy is poised for an unprecedented takeoff after taking a hit from the pandemic, now is not the time to expand casino gambling, which will benefit a handful at the expense of many,” Bush said.

As it now stands, the 30-year compact would build a complicated regulatory structure much broader than any state has had before regarding gambling. The tribe has guaranteed the state $2.5 billion during the first five years.

Subject to revision, the compact features a statewide legalization of sports betting on actual events as well as Fantasy Sports for the first time. Those and other casino games are currently illegal outside tribal lands due to a 2018 constitutional amendment that prohibits expansion of gambling except as authorized by statewide voter referendum.

A proposed “hub and spoke” system aims to get around the constitutional amendment by requiring that the servers that process the bets be physically located on tribal land regardless where the bet originated.

Opponents of expanded sports betting are expected to challenge the constitutionality of that workaround.

Under the new compact, the Seminole Tribe would continue to have exclusive rights to host certain gambling games and would soon be able to add craps and roulette to the offerings at its casinos.

Under the last compact between the state and the tribe, signed in 2010, “banked” or “designated player” card games were to be exclusive to the tribe, but the state breached that provision by allowing them to be played beyond tribal lands, leading to the tribe halting revenue-sharing payments to the state in April 2019. The lost revenue is estimated at $350 million, according to legislative analyses.

Under the new compact, pari-mutuels could continue offering banked games. In exchange, the tribe could begin offering craps and roulette.

A pair of similar bills in the House and Senate would create a “state gaming control commission” with authority to investigate gambling operations and ensure compliance of the parties to the contract.

Another pair would officially would kill greyhound racing in Florida (which was outlawed by a referendum in 2018) and would clarify the ability of pari-mutuel permit-holders to offer slot machines and card rooms without hosting live events such as horse racing and jai-alai.

Bingo games could soon be offered by pari-mutuel facilities in addition to the usual charities. Players could use “electronic card minder” devices to play their cards for them. As many as 350 such minders could operate in a facility at the same time.

The Seminole Tribe operates seven casinos in Florida and would be authorized under the proposed compact to build three more on tribal land in Broward County over the life of the agreement.

The proposed changes in the way Florida regulates gambling permits and licenses could create a host of new opportunities for the gambling industry. The possibilities include speculation that former President Donald Trump could acquire an existing permit or license to allow him to open a casino at his resort in Doral, in Dade County, as reported last week by USA Today Network.

Dade and Broward counties are the only two in Florida where casinos are authorized by local referenda.

View all the special-session bills, amendments and staff analyses as they become available at this link.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.
Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]