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Florida lawmakers convene special session to consider Seminole's $2.5 billion gambling deal

Publication date: May 7, 2021, 11: 21 h.

Last updated: May 7, 2021, 01: 58 h.

Philip Conneller

The Florida Legislature will reconvene for a special session the week of May 17 to confront the $2.5 billion gambling deal.

Seminols
Photo Hard Rock Casino Hollywood, along with six other Seminole properties in Florida, will be able to offer sports betting, roulette and craps if a deal is struck. (Photo: Hard Rock International)

The deal signed last month by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. is the culmination of more than five years of failed talks and legal battles between the powerful tribe and the state. He is proposing the largest gambling expansion in Florida in decades.

Under the agreement, the Seminoles would be the exclusive mobile and land-based operator. based on sports betting in Florida for at least the next 30 years. They would also be able to offer craps and roulette at any of Florida's seven casinos.

The legislature needs to log off. And with state-guaranteed payments of at least $500 million a year for the first five years, the stakes were never higher.

The one who left

Except that's not entirely true. In 2015, former Gov. Rick Scott agreed to a $3 billion deal with the Seminoles. Those payments were to be spread over seven years, not five. But a sports betting monopoly wasn't part of the equation - only blackjack, roulette and craps - so it was probably a better deal for the state.

But lawmakers rejected the deal. A year later, a federal court found that the state had violated a previous deal with the Seminoles by allowing pari-mutuel racetracks to offer "games designed for gamblers" that ape casino games.

The judge ruled the games violated the tribe's exclusivity, and that meant the Seminoles could offer blackjack in their casinos exclusively and for free until 2030. That weakened the state's hand at the bargaining table.

The new agreement would allow pari-mutuels to continue offering player-designated games.

Appearing error lines

Could lawmakers let America's biggest revenue-sharing deal slip through their fingers twice in six years? Certainly yes, Tallahassee observers say. After all, its members have never been exceptionally good at agreeing on any gambling-related issues.

"As expected, everyone interested in the outcome has already hired a swarm of lobbyists, public relations specialists, and enough lawyers to fill much of Doak Campbell Stadium, " writes Brian Burgess in The Capitolist . "Having so many people, each with their own agenda, means that there are some significant errors in the 'process'."

Even if both chambers of the legislature manage to come to a consensus - and it's possible - the deal will face legal challenges. In 2018, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that requires voter approval of all proposed gambling expansions in the state.

The governor says the expansion is taking place on Seminole sovereign land and not in Florida, although that may be a stretch when it comes to mobile sports betting.

The DeSantis-Seminole deal is headed to the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 17 and should go to the Senate floor the next day. All things considered, it should hit the House floor on May 19.

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