Casino Life

Florida Lawmakers Approve New Tribal Gambling Compact

The Florida House on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed a new 30-year gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe, putting an end to a special three-day legislative session called to ratify the deal.

The state Senate voted in favor of the agreement a day earlier. It is now headed to the US Department of the Interior for final approval. However, many believe the deal would face legal challenges due to certain provisions it contains. In addition, federal authorities may not approve it in its current form namely due to these provisions.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and tribal leaders signed the new compact in late April in a historic move that essentially marked the end of prolonged negotiations between the two parties that oftentimes escalated into outright bickering.

Under its original gambling deal with the state, the tribe had to annually pay $350 million in exchange for exclusivity over the operation of blackjack tables. The Seminoles halted their payments in 2019, arguing that Florida has breached its part of the contract by permitting the state’s pari-mutuels to conduct the so-called designated player games.

These games have long been a sticking point in years-long negotiations over a new deal, but the involved parties have finally reached an accord on the issue.

Pari-mutuels will be allowed to operate the contentious games as long as they maintain them in their current state and do not undertake any future expansions.

As for the Seminoles, they will be able to add craps and roulette to their table games offering at their seven casinos in Florida.

Sports Betting Coming to the State… Maybe?

The new gambling deal could turn the Seminole Tribe into the state’s sports betting hub. Under its terms, the tribe will be able to operate retail sportsbooks at its casinos and provide Internet services via its newly-formed Hard Rock Digital platform.

In addition, pari-mutuels will be able to contract with the tribe and offer sports betting products. All wagering services will be located on reservation land.

Under an earlier version of the compact, the tribe and the state would have been able to commence negotiations over the potential legalization of online casino gaming after three years, but following pressure from the Legislature, that provision was removed earlier this week.

In exchanged for all the additional gambling options the Seminoles will be able to provide, the tribe has agreed to pay at least $500 million a year over the first five years and continue to share a portion of its gaming and wagering revenue with the state over the entire duration of the deal.

Although the compact gained enough support to move out of the Legislature, it has many opponents and is likely to be challenged in court, particularly the portion of it that deals with sports betting.

According to anti-gambling lobbyists, sports betting cannot be introduced in Florida without a statewide referendum. A constitutional amendment that state voters approved in the November 2018 ballot requires all forms of gambling expansion to be voted by residents of the state. Ironically, the amendment was spearheaded by the Seminoles, the No Casinos group, and Disney.

The Seminoles and state lawmakers maintain that a referendum is not needed because all sports betting will be conducted on servers based on tribal land.

The federal government now has 45 days to review the compact and decide whether to approve or reject it. Florida lawmakers expect a decision to be known by August.

Even if the Interior Department sides with opponents and order the sports betting portion of the deal to be scrapped, the Seminoles would still have to pay at least $450 million a year to the state over the first five years in exchange for the expanded gaming options at its casinos.

Sources: Lawmakers approve massive gambling expansion for FL but the deal faces state and federal hurdles, Florida Phoenix, May 19, 2021

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