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Special session begins with new gaming deal facing uncertain future in Florida

'I think you're going to have bipartisan support on both sides of the aisle,' Sen. Travis Hutson says
Posted at 5:31 PM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-17 18:29:08-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Will it pass?

Florida lawmakers are back at the Capitol considering a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe this week.

It’ll expand tribal operations and bring mobile sports betting to the state. But no one is certain whether supporters have the votes needed.

Monday started with a compromise. Leadership announced the governor and tribe had agreed to morph their 30-year, multi-billion dollar deal to ease growing concerns among lawmakers about a specific provision in the pact.

Original language required the state to enter into future negotiations with the tribe for online casino gambling. It was struck with a signed addendum.

"In my discussions with our Members, I realized many shared the same concern as I — that some language in the compact could be construed to lead to the backdoor expansion of online gaming," said House Speaker Chris Sprowls in a statement. "Even the mere possibility of this was unacceptable, and therefore Chairman Renner, Chairman Fine, and I engaged directly with the Seminole Tribe on this issue."

Still intact:

  • Tribe-managed mobile sports betting, now set to start Oct. 15
  • Craps and roulette at tribal facilities
  • The ability to expand those six operations across the state, plus add three more on the Hollywood reservation
  • State’s $2.5-billion-guarantee in new revenue over the first five years

"I’ve been talking to a lot of the members," said State Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast. "I think you're going to have bipartisan support on both sides of the aisle."

State Sen. Travis Hutson of Palm Coast
State Sen. Travis Hutson said he believes the new gaming rules will receive bipartisan support.

Hutson, who's managing the deal in the upper chamber, called it a win for everyone. He also said online sports betting would be a chance for Florida to modernize.

"Every other state is starting to take that step," he said. "I don't want to be the last."

But there are still big concerns. Former Gov. Jeb Bush has put a finger on the scale, coming out in opposition to the deal. The Republican said in a statement the agreement would only benefit a few at the expense of many.

"South Florida is on a roll!" the statement read. "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."

State Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg
Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg doesn't believe the new gaming regulations favor the state of Florida.

Along those lines, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has also raised concern. He called the agreement a monopoly for the Seminoles.

"Great deal for the tribe -- but not a great deal for the state of Florida," Brandes said. "It prohibits innovation that would occur in that space. ... We're essentially being asked to sign a 30-year mortgage with very little information, and the terms are still up for debate. Nobody would do that."

ABC Action News spoke with Florida-based sports betting attorney Daniel Wallach about the special session on gaming. He says when it comes to online gaming the state legislature must go through the Seminole Tribe, and they have to do it right to avoid legal battles from the outside.

“Both sides realize that the only way to add i-gaming to the mix is to go through the Seminole tribe, so why put a good-faith negotiating requirement. They realize there is no other mechanism to do this to accomplish this through the tribe. Eventually, the state and the tribe will find common ground over the issue without having this amorphous, ambiguous requirement to negation in good faith. That is like an agreement to agree.”

The other big issue out there: Does the deal violate Amendment 3, requiring voters to weigh in on an expansion of gaming?

Supporters still think the law is on their side as this is a tribal agreement. Opponents are threatening legal challenges if it goes through.