DeSantis Says Gambling Deal Could Be a ‘Lift’


Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis

With time already an enemy, Gov. Ron DeSantis injected more uncertainty Tuesday into a gambling deal reached by a Senate Republican leader and a representative of the Seminole Tribe, saying its passage would be a “legislative lift” with less than two weeks remaining in the annual session.

“There’s a lot of stuff to go through,” DeSantis told reporters Tuesday morning. “I’d like to get a deal, but at the same time I’ve got to make sure that what we’re doing is right for Florida.”

The governor said he and his staff have begun scrutinizing “a draft outline” of the agreement, which would open the door for sports betting in Florida, with the tribe acting as a “hub” for sports betting at the state’s pari-mutuels.

But the Republican governor appeared skeptical of some sports-betting provisions in the deal, which reportedly also would permit in-play betting at professional sports arenas.

The manner in which sports betting is set up “could really affect the integrity of the games,” said DeSantis, who, as an undergraduate played baseball for Yale University.

“If I can place a wager on whether the first pitch of a game is going to be a strike or not, well, hell, that’s a big moral hazard, because that’s not necessarily something that would affect the total outcome,” he added.

While professional sports leagues are pushing the state to legalize sports betting, some team owners are even more eager to allow in-play betting, known as “proposition” or “prop” betting, during games.

DeSantis said he was aware that the leagues “want to get involved” in sports betting, which a number of states have legalized or are considering following a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer in a New Jersey case. The governor said the leagues want people to be able to place bets on games while they’re in the stadiums.

“But I don’t know if it’s limited to those areas or if it’s just anybody. Can I just be in my bedroom betting on sports? So, I need to figure that out. But it seems like the sports leagues have really been embracing this, so I’m willing to discuss that. I haven’t put forth opposition to it,” he said.

DeSantis stressed that he had not been party to the negotiations between Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican slated to take over as Senate president following the 2020 elections, and the tribe. For weeks, Simpson has been in talks with Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming on an agreement known as a “compact.”

Simpson acknowledged last week that the concept of allowing the tribe to run sports books at the state’s dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons was intended to sidestep a constitutional amendment that passed in November requiring statewide votes on citizens’ initiatives that would expand casino-type gambling.

But DeSantis, a graduate of Harvard Law School, indicated the constitutional amendment adds another layer of analysis to an already-complicated legal deal that also encompasses serious policy-making decisions.

“Obviously, me and my staff we’re going through it, looking substantively (at) what it means, but also legally. As you know, there’s a lot of legalities that are involved in this. There is just an amendment that passed. You know, the question, does it apply to the tribe? Does it apply to this or that? So there’s a whole host of things I think that need to be vetted through, but prior to yesterday I had not seen the outline. We have seen it now and are going through it,” DeSantis said.

Rumors about the components of the deal were rampant as Simpson and the Seminoles negotiated. But as of late Tuesday afternoon, even lobbyists who are close to House and Senate Republican leaders and the governor had not seen an actual document.

But some issues opposed by pari-mutuels could imperil the deal’s success in the House, several lobbyists said.

Controversial “designated player” games offered at many of the state’s pari-mutuel cardrooms are a key element of the deal. The Seminoles — and a federal judge — have maintained that the card games violate a 2010 gambling agreement with the state that gave the tribe “exclusivity” over offering banked card games, such as blackjack.

Amid the dispute about designated player games, former Gov. Rick Scott entered an agreement with the tribe in which the Seminoles have continued to pay about $350 million a year to the state, which pledged to “aggressively enforce” how the games are played. But that agreement expires on May 31, and the House and Senate have not included the revenue in next year’s budget.

The deal under discussion would severely alter the way the card games are being played, making them virtually unprofitable for pari-mutuel cardrooms, sources said.

House Speaker José Oliva told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday afternoon that he had seen a “brief outline” of the gambling proposal.

“I’ve still got to see much more detail,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said.

To appease the pari-mutuels about the changes to the designed player games, the proposed agreement would also allow horse tracks to do away with horse races, while keeping lucrative activities like cardrooms and slot machines, which are legal at tracks in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. It is unclear whether such “decoupling” would also apply to jai alai frontons. Dog tracks are already allowed to drop greyhound races, thanks to a voter-approved constitutional amendment passed in November.

The pari-mutuels would also be able to operate sports books, with a cut going to the tribe, but the profits from sports betting wouldn’t offset the losses from the changes in the designated player games, according to industry experts.

“I haven’t seen the final compact proposal, but I am hopeful that the governor and Legislature won’t support a proposal that takes designated player poker games from existing businesses, and the jobs they provide, to further the tribe’s gambling monopoly in Florida,” lobbyist Nick Iarossi, whose clients include Melbourne Greyhound Park and Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday afternoon.

Under the agreement, the Seminoles would be able to add craps and roulette to other gambling activities currently underway at the tribe’s casinos. The tribe would agree to pay about $400 million a year to the state, an amount that could gradually increase to about $500 million a year. That’s a boost from the current revenue-sharing agreement with the tribe, but far less than what legislative leaders had originally envisioned.

The decisions by the House and Senate to not include the tribe’s annual payments in their budget proposals takes some pressure off negotiators as lawmakers work to hammer out a final budget in the coming days.

Senate President Bill Galvano on Tuesday afternoon told the News Service that Simpson was continuing to work on the gambling deal, which the president said was still in play.

But with just a week-and-a-half left before the legislative session is slated to end, DeSantis hinted that passage of a compact would be extremely difficult.

“You’re going to have a lot of stakeholders that are going to have something to say about this, so I would imagine that it’s going to require legislative lifting. Obviously, the Senate leaders are for it. I don’t know that Jose is necessarily for it, yet. He may be amenable to it. So that’s going to require some serious lift,” the governor said.

House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, also cast doubt on passing a deal.

“I still think that issue would have a long ways to go at this point in session,” he said.