While Florida is currently getting a national beating for unruly Spring-breakers and a reputation for neglecting COVID-19 protocol, some good news has emerged from the Sunshine State.
Nearly three weeks into the 2021 legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis floated the possibility of striking a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe. It came rather surprisingly as the Governor had not willfully campaigned for legalized sports wagering too often over the past few years.
The governor mentioned last Thursday said the issue will be resolved or taken off the table “within the next week or so.” DeSantis’ remarks came after he met with operators of the state’s pari-mutuel facilities earlier that morning.
Senate President Wilton Simpson also met with the Seminole Tribe to potentially firm up an agreement as part of the meeting with the pari-mutuel executives. The hope is to advance talks before the legislative session ends in Tallahassee on April 30.
The Seminole Tribe owns and operates six casinos in Florida. Since 2019 they have refused to pay the state an estimated $700 million in taxes ($350m per year) due because they disagree with how Florida has offered alternative gaming options that have become available at the state’s horse tracks and other gambling facilities.
Florida and the Seminoles remain apart in a fight over “designated player” card games that are offered at many of the state’s pari-mutuel facilities.
DeSantis has willfully admitted that any deal has to be constructed with the Seminoles participation. When the meeting concluded with the pari-mutuel operators, he indicated he would not favor any new arrangement that would harm them. DeSantis then said:
Ultimately, I don’t represent the Seminoles. I represent Florida businesses and employees. We want to make sure those folks are able to do well under whatever arrangement may be reached between the state of Florida and the nation of the Seminole Indian tribe. We will see what comes of that, but something will come up of it, probably one way or another. Within the next week or so, I think we’ll know whether we have a path to have an agreement or whether that agreement may remain elusive going forward.
It was reported in the DeSantis proposal that a provision would allow the tribe and its casinos to operate online wagering in Florida. According to a story in the Miami Herald, in return, the Seminole Tribe would resume paying revenue to the state every year from its gambling operations.
It was said that a compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe once provided up to $350 million in tax revenue. Those payments were suspended when the pari-mutuel operators were allowed to expand gambling operations without any legal opposition from the state of Florida.
As in any legislative decision involving a new issue, political forces are always a critical component. Being that Gov. DeSantis is a strong Republican and Republicans control both the House and Senate in Florida. It is unlikely he would face any opposition championing this cause.
By process, any bill passed in the Senate would have to clear the House. Being that the GOP has a lock on both branches of the legislature, he would certainly see a Senate-passed bill with his backing.
DeSantis took a rather pragmatic approach toward welcoming sports wagering to help the economy during the pandemic vs. the situation facing other US states more aggressively needing its help.
He mentioned it was “a good position to be in Florida” that he was aggressive during the pandemic when it came to re-opening businesses. Because of that, it was spared much of the economic damage that other states suffered. A case when such a significant portion of its economy built around tourism. The state’s unemployment rate is currently 4.8%, down from 14% only 10 months ago. Many smaller businesses are suffering due to a labor shortage.
In the story written in the Herald that DeSantis said:
If it’s something that benefits the state, we obviously have an obligation to work to do that, but at the same time, we are not in a position where we’re desperately needing additional revenue at this point, and I think that that’s a good position to be in.
At this juncture, any formal agreement still has a way to go without naming any official potential starting date. Simpson said he and the pari-mutuel operators spoke in “generalities” about a possible framework of a compact.
The only negative factor seems to be the six-year history in Florida of trying to approve any formal compacts like this and moving it swiftly through the House. But the swift success of sports wagering and iGaming throughout other US states combined with the need for new tax revenue may be the formula this time to get a deal done.
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Larry Gibbs is both a seasoned journalist and a respected online gaming industry consultant. His wry commentary & sharp analysis have appeared in numerous top gaming and sports wagering publications. He has also served as Vice President of US Gaming Services, a marketing research organization with 15 years of experience in US online wagering. He has spoken at noted gaming industry conferences including G2E, GiGSE, and NCLGS.
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