Seminole Tribe ties to ease concerns about gambling deal

As lawmakers prepare to decide whether to approve a $2.5 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the tribe is trying to assuage concerns about part of the agreement that could open the door to the legalization of online betting in the state.

Lawmakers are holding a special session this week to consider the complex deal, signed late last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. In part, the deal would allow the Seminoles to have control of sports betting throughout the state. Pari-mutuel operators would be able to conduct sports betting through revenue-sharing agreements with the tribe.

The 75-page deal, known as a "compact," also would require the state and the tribe to "engage in good faith negotiations" within 36 months "to consider an amendment to authorize the tribe to offer all types of covered games online or via mobile devices to players physically located in the state."

The online betting provision has drawn scrutiny from gambling opponents and conservative lawmakers, prompting the tribe to issue a letter assuring that the language in the compact is benign.

"The question that has been asked is whether the tribe would have a remedy if the state failed to negotiate such an amendment or to negotiate in good faith. The simple answer is that the tribe would not have a remedy," Osceola wrote Wednesday to DeSantis, House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson in a letter obtained by The News Service of Florida.

The provision in the compact "is simply an agreement to continue discussions about online gaming, but there is no enforcement mechanism if the state fails to engage in such discussions," Osceola wrote. The Seminoles would not be able to seek enforcement of the provision from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees tribal compacts, Osceola said.

The Seminoles "will not attempt to enforce" the online gaming section of the compact through litigation, the federal government "or any other means," the tribal leader said.

"As you know, the tribe has always kept its word in its dealings with the state," he added.

The letter said the Seminoles hope, however, that the state would "discuss the matter of online gaming … on a government-to-government basis" in the future.

"However, such an agreement will require further negotiations between the parties and approval by the Florida Legislature," Osceola concluded.

It is possible that lawmakers could consider revising the provision about online gambling during this week’s special session, which is slated to start Monday afternoon and also will involve other gambling-related legislation. Any amendments to the deal would have to be authorized by DeSantis and the tribe.

The Seminoles, who also unleashed two statewide television ads promoting the proposed 30-year compact, are seeking to quell a rising tide of discontent about the agreement.

Opposition to the pact is increasing among some Republican House members, conservative leaders, some gambling experts, and the No Casinos organization, which backed a 2018 constitutional amendment that required statewide voter approval of future expansions of gambling in Florida.

Proponents of what is known as Amendment 3 maintain that the compact would violate the constitutional amendment unless voters statewide sign off on legalizing sports betting in Florida. Supporters of the compact contend that sports wagers would be handled by servers on tribal lands and, as a result, would not require a referendum.

Lawmakers would need to approve the compact, which then also would have to go to the U.S. Department of the Interior. During the special session, the Capitol will be fully open to the public for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

DeSantis’ success at securing a perennially elusive deal with the Seminoles --- and delivering a minimum $2.5 billion over five years to state coffers --- could be a boost for the Republican governor as he seeks a second term in 2022 and as he is floated as a possible presidential contender in 2024.

Despite their qualms about expanding the state’s gambling footprint, Republican lawmakers who control the House and Senate are unlikely to quash a compact that would be a major achievement for the GOP governor whose political star is on the rise.

But opposition to the gambling deal, including from Republican base voters, is intensifying.

The Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative organization led by Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, and other groups are holding a rally Tuesday at the Capitol to try to convince lawmakers to vote against the compact. The coalition, which includes No Casinos, is bringing buses of people from Jacksonville, Miami, Tampa, and Orlando.

A briefing on the Florida Family Policy Council’s website contends that allowing sports betting without voters’ consent "completely ignores" the constitutional amendment "and the will of the people who adopted it."