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Lawmakers to tackle sports betting in special session Monday

Ultimately, it would be up to Florida legislators to make a decision on legalization, but...
Ultimately, it would be up to Florida legislators to make a decision on legalization, but there's a ballot amendment later this year giving voters an exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling in the State of Florida making things a little complicated.
Updated: May. 16, 2021 at 8:06 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WWSB) - The Florida Legislature goes into a special session beginning Monday to hash out rules and regulations on a new pact over gaming that is expected to generate billions for the state over the next five years.

On April 23, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed a 30-year gaming compact. The deal would, for the first time, legalize online betting on professional and collegiate sport events, regulate fantasy sports contests in Florida, and allow Seminole casinos to add games such as roulette and craps.

Under the compact, the state is expected to receive at least $2.5 billion within five years, with the tribe serving as a hub for sports betting and also getting benefits such as being able to add three facilities to its Hard Rock casino in Hollywood.

“We truly believe that this is the best deal for everybody. It’s not in favor of the tribe or the state. It’s in favor of both parties, because this is a long-lasting team,” tribe Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. said when the compact was signed.

The compact also creates a new five-member, independent commission to regulate and enforce gaming laws and gives new authority for a prosecutors to pursue gaming violations.

The special session will consider nine bills that have been filed in both the Florida House and Senate. Besides ratifying the deal between DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe, the bills set up rules, regulations and enforcement authority for the new activities.

The proposed legislation also seeks to more clearly define the footprint of gaming in Florida by eliminating inactive pari-mutuel permits, prohibiting new permits for pari-mutuel facilities, and establishing new guardrails on gaming activities in the state.

Some highlights of the new Compact with the Seminole Tribe include:

  • A new 30-year deal with the Seminole Tribe;
  • Addition of craps and roulette at tribal facilities;
  • A $2.5 billion revenue-sharing guarantee in the first five years;
  • Statewide online sports betting in partnership with existing pari-mutuels.

Some of the highlights of the pari-mutuel bill include:

  • Decoupling jai alai, harness, and quarter horse racing;
  • Creating penalties for greyhound racing consistent with the constitutional prohibition;
  • Revising outdated regulations to help modernize Florida’s legacy pari-mutuel industry.

In total, the proposed gaming legislation seeks to balance the requirements of federal Indian gaming law, the complex pari-mutuel regulations established over decades, and the need to better enforce restrictions against illegal gaming, all while adhering to the new constitutional restrictions on casino-style gaming.

The Seminole Tribe operates casinos on tribal reservations in Florida, located in Okeechobee, Coconut Creek, Hollywood, Immokalee and Clewiston; and operates Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa.

Legal questions

Ratifying the compact and regulations may not be a rubber stamp exercise. Experts are divided about whether the Florida Constitution requires statewide voter approval to legalize sports betting. Other lawyers believe that the proposed compact with the Seminoles could conflict with federal law.

“Florida is a legal landmine,” Hallandale Beach lawyer Daniel Wallach, who specializes in sports betting, said in an interview with News Service of Florida.

Wallach warned the compact could result in a legal quagmire because of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which governs what activities tribes can engage in.

Under the April 23 agreement, the Seminoles would serve as a hub for online sports betting, with pari-mutuel operators contracting with the tribe. Pari-mutuels would get to keep 60 percent of sports-betting revenue, with 40 percent going to the Seminoles. The tribe would pay the state up to 14 percent on the net winnings.

But Wallach and others question whether federal law allows the state to enter into a compact that authorizes gambling off tribal lands, even if the technology handling wagering transactions is located on the Seminoles’ property.

Wallach pointed to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which provides that tribes may conduct certain types of gambling activities “on tribal lands.” Courts have strictly interpreted the federal law to mean that the activities need to take place on tribal lands.

The Department of the Interior has 45 days to authorize a tribal compact, once it has been ratified by the Florida Legislature. If the Department of the Interior doesn’t act within that period of time, the compact automatically goes into effect.

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