The Florida Senate ratified a 30-year gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida on Tuesday, ahead of a vote expected Wednesday in the House of Representatives.
Over small but pointed bipartisan opposition, the Senate voted 38-1 to ratify the agreement negotiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. It guarantees Florida a share of the tribe’s gambling revenue, worth $2.5 billion over the next five years in exchange for expanded gambling options for the tribe.
The overall ratification legislation called Senate Bill 2-A includes fantasy sports contests. However, the Senate adjourned without voting on a bill called Senate Bill 16-A related to fantasy sports implementation.
“It got derailed. … Maybe next year,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson.
Senate Bill 2-A, grants new exclusive rights to the Seminole Tribe to operate craps and roulette at its casinos. It also legalizes statewide online betting on sporting events via cellphones and electronic devices, contrary to the apparent intent of a constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2018 to prohibit expanding gambling except by referenda. Players would have to be at least 21 to participate in statewide sports betting.
While the Senate is GOP-controlled, Democrats supported the legislation on Tuesday, saying that despite its flaws, they didn’t want to turn down the money.
“Good deal or bad deal, it is the deal we have on the table, and I can’t in good conscience turn down the money,” said Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade. “For all these years, we haven’t getting anything. That’s not a good deal at all.”
The tribe has not paid the state in revenue sharing since 2019, after the state breached the terms of the previous compact. The loss of revenue to the state is estimated at $350 million.
An especially controversial piece of the new gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe was deleted Monday, removing the possibility of establishing online gambling statewide in the near future. Online gambling, including playing slot machines, is considered particularly hazardous to the financial wellbeing of naive players and compulsive gamblers.
Critics of the implementing bill said the process is rife with secrecy provisions, from public-records exemptions to refusing to officially record questions and answers Tuesday about details of what the compact will and won’t authorize in the future.
Several Democratic senators tried to pin down guarantees that existing permits could not be moved to authorize new casinos elsewhere, including speculation that former President Donald Trump could secure a permit to open a casino at his Trump National Doral resort in Miami.
Sen. Travis Hutson, the northeast Florida Republican spearheading legislation to implement the gambling compact, said he does not think the compact would authorize that but he objected to having lawmakers’ questions and his answers recorded in the Senate Journal, an official record often consulted after the fact to clarify what was the Senate’s intent.
Sen. Gary Farmer, Broward Democrat, and others, anticipating multiple layers of future lawsuits challenging the compact, made motions to officially record the Senate’s discussions for future review in court. Farmer’s motion was soundly defeated.
“Why in the world would we hide from the public …. what we do here on this floor?” Farmer asked. “This will be a black eye on this institution.”
Hutson argued that The Florida Channel records debate. Farmer argued that video is not necessarily admissible in court, whereas the official Senate Journal clearly is.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican and libertarian, voted against Senate Bill 2-A, urging fellow senators to uphold “open and free markets” and reject the compact.
“We’re not building a free market in Florida. We’re creating a statewide monopoly for one entity,” Brandes said.
“The current posture that we’re in right now shows that one side is very good at negotiating and the other side has never made a payroll or signed the front of a paycheck,” Pizzo said, joining a chorus of critics who said the governor failed to negotiate a good deal — but forced to take it or leave it, they’ll take it.
Also Tuesday morning, most members of the Senate agreed to allow retiring legislators to be appointed by the governor to a new gaming control commission without a two-year waiting period between those jobs. The waiting period required in the original bill was removed.
Sen. Brandes and Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami-Dade objected, saying the new language for commission appointees creates a “dream job” for retiring lawmakers, with a $140,000 salary, and is inconsistent with state ethics law barring retired legislators from lobbying state government without first waiting six years.
“I’m not really sure what these individuals will do on a day to day basis,” Brandes said. “This entity will become political. This entity will have commissioners who basically have a job they don’t have to show up for.”
Hutson conceded it was not his preference but was the will of leaders in the House and Senate.
Farmer and Pizzo also fought the public-records exemption for that commission, which the bill sponsor said is designed to protect “trade secrets.” Farmer and Pizzo said the exemption is too broad to accomplish only that and leaves the future gaming commission, with no waiting period required of retiring legislators and no clear job description, able to conduct secret proceedings.
The Senate’s other gambling bills, excepting fantasy sports and bingo, also passed with wide support and Brandes voting no.
The House will take up the Senate-approved bills Wednesday.