Editorial: Florida lawmakers should fold on Gov. DeSantis' proposed gambling giveaway

The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
View Comments
The Guitar Hotel at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood is illuminated at night in Hollywood, Fla. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reached an agreement with the state's Seminole Tribe on Friday, April 23, 2021, that would greatly expand gambling in the state, including the introduction of legalized sports wagering. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

If Gov. DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe have their way, Florida would fast become the East Coast answer to Las Vegas. But the deal they’re pushing to make that happen would expand gaming venues and online sports at an explosive pace, while setting up even more expansion down the road and bypassing the citizen approval that voters demand and the law requires.

Even assuming they beat back inevitable legal challenges, the deal would generate far too little for taxpayers. 

In the special session beginning on Monday, the Legislature needs to shut it down. 

As our colleague John Kennedy reported last week, a U.S. Supreme Court decision three years ago opened the door to sports betting beyond the limits of Nevada, and with it, access to the billions it could generate. 

With sports betting on the table, DeSantis last year dangled granting the Seminoles the right to host it at its seven casinos, and to add casinos on tribal property in coming years. 

The deal would give the tribe exclusive control over online sports betting and fantasy sports contests, making it the casino of record for any individual in Florida using a cellphone or computer to bet on those games. It would allow the tribe to offer craps and roulette at its casinos and to move, expand or replace five of them and add three new ones at its Hard Rock operations in Hollywood. 

The Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, on the last day of legal dog racing in Florida on Dec. 31, 2020. The owners hope a proposal to expand sports betting and other forms of gambling will bring out the crowds.

Florida pari-mutuel sites, including the Palm Beach Kennel Club, also would be dealt in, allowed to use their facilities, provided they give the tribe a fat piece of the action. 

Meanwhile, the deal would restrict state oversight of this whole sea change. The Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering could propose additional regulations but the Seminole Tribal Gaming Commission would only be obligated to give “good faith consideration” to such “suggestions."

For its generosity, Florida would receive $500 million a year over the next five years, while the Seminoles reap billions, year after year.

Though DeSantis' Republican majority in the Capitol likely will approve his deal this week, more hurdles await.

The U.S. Department of Interior also must OK it, DeSantis' constant badmouthing of the Biden administration notwithstanding. Then will come the lawsuits expected from state and local organizations opposed to expanding gambling to out-of-state online casino operators.

And then there's the question of whether the deal will stand up to the will of Florida voters. For a state long reluctant to expand gambling, it's a lot to accept.

Floridians in 1978 and 1986 rejected constitutional amendments to expand casino gambling. In 2004 they barely approved an amendment to allow slots at pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. They weighed in again in 2018 with Amendment 3, giving voters the exclusive right to decide whether to expand casino gambling.

The amendment went before voters with the backing of the tribe and The Walt Disney Co., which combined spent $44 million in support. It was designed to blunt the arrival of casinos in Florida but did not apply to casinos on tribal land.

John Sowinski, who led the Amendment 3 campaign approved by 71% of Florida voters, told Kennedy that measure should stop all talk in Tallahassee, as it gives voters the “exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling.” Amendment 3, after all, was designed to blunt the arrival of casinos in Florida.

But because it did not apply to tribal land, the question is, whether the courts will let the state use the Seminoles to do an end run around the will of the voters by letting the tribe deputize, in a sense, locations off the reservation.

As Sowinski put it: “If this is such a great idea, why not let the voters decide it? Why assume there are ways around voter intent, rather than doing what the voters intended?”

If DeSantis and state lawmakers want Floridians to go all in, then give them a bigger share. But this is a bad hand for Florida, and the sneaky maneuver to get around the voters (a regular habit with the Legislature) doesn't make it any better.

View Comments