FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Legality of Florida’s proposed gaming compact could be a dice roll

The Center Square
By John Haughey
April 27, 2021

The guitar shaped hotel at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on in Hollywood, Fla. Brynn Anderson / AP

(The Center Square) – If the Legislature endorses a proposed 30-year gaming compact with the Seminoles without voter approval, lengthy litigation and political repercussions are certain, a powerful Sunshine State anti-gambling group is warning.

“Bottom line is, if it’s such a great deal for Florida, for the citizens of this state, why not let the voters have the say?” No Casinos President John Sowinski said after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signed a tentative pact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida Friday that must be approved by lawmakers in a special session set for May 17.

No Casinos has stymied the growth of high-stakes casino gambling in Florida since 1978. Its Tallahassee-based Voters In Charge committee raised $45 million in contributions – much from Disney and, ironically, the Seminoles – in spearheading the three-year campaign for Amendment 3, which was adopted by 71 percent of voters in November 2018.

No Casinos maintains lawmakers must reject the compact because it allegedly violates Amendment 3’s constitutional mandate that any expansion of gaming be approved by voters in a statewide referendum.

“This violates Amendment 3 in at least three ways,” Sowinski said, vowing No Casinos – and, he added, others – will seek to have the deal tossed as unconstitutional if lawmakers endorse it.

Details of the pact emerged in the preceding days before DeSantis announced Friday that two years of negotiations had produced a 75-page deal that stipulates the tribe pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the 30-year agreement’s first five years.

Under the pact, the tribe would also be granted exclusive control of blackjack and craps and at its seven casinos, as well as sports betting – a $2 billion market in Florida by 2025, according to 2019 projections by Morgan Stanley – on its properties as well as at non-tribal pari-mutuels and via its new Hard Rock Digital platform.

By allowing the Seminoles to control sports betting, the deal would not violate 2018’s Amendment 3, according to DeSantis, legislative leaders and the tribe.

As a sovereign tribal nation, the Seminole’s gaming operations are governed under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), allowing them to circumvent Amendment 3’s mandate that any gaming expansion be approved by state voters.

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida is committed to a mutually beneficial gaming compact with the state of Florida and looks forward to its approval by the Florida Legislature, the said Seminole Tribal Council and the U.S. Department of the Interior,” Seminole Tribe of Florida Chair Marcellus Osceola Jr said.

Not so fast, Sowinski said, noting having sports-betting servers on tribal property while people use mobile apps across Florida is among one of three ways the pact violates the state’s constitution.

“I don’t think it even passes the sniff test. The file server being on tribal land does not make the gambling on tribal land,” he said. “If you accept that premise, then the Tribe could operate casinos all over the state as long as the random-number generators in the slot machines were on tribal lands.”

No Casinos claims establishing a sports betting program, expanding tribal gaming in non-tribal locations and “decoupling” racing from pari-mutuel card rooms each constitute an increase in Class III gambling in Florida and violate Amendment 3.

“We call on the governor and our legislators to honor the will of the people, who demanded any new casino gambling authorization occur at the ballot box, not behind closed doors in Tallahassee,” No Casinos declared. “We are committed to defending the integrity of Florida’s Constitution, and ensuring that the will of the people is respected.”

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