Why A Seventh Florida Sports Betting Bill Might Be The One That Stands A Chance

Written By Matthew Kredell on March 16, 2021 - Last Updated on September 19, 2022

Florida has six sports betting bills, none of which has a chance of seeing daylight in the Sunshine State.

However, there may still be one coming that has a shot at expanding gambling in Florida.

Any sports betting bill passed in Florida needs to begin with a compact agreement with the Seminole Tribe. Current bills are irrelevant because they do not include the Seminole.

However, Marc Dunbar, a gaming attorney who represents the Seminole but does not speak officially on behalf of the tribe, tells PlayFL that he hears Sen. Travis Hutson is working on legislation that could navigate the difficult challenges any gambling expansion bill faces in Florida.

“If it can be done, Sen. Hutson is the guy who can do it,” Dunbar said. “He has a good relationship with the governor because his Senate seat was the governor’s congressional seat and they’ve known each other for a while. We’ll know in a couple weeks. Maybe something can be put together.”

Recap of the Florida gaming landscape

Florida has proven to be one of the most complicated states in which to legalize sports betting.

US District Court judge ruled in 2016 that the state breached tribal exclusivity for banked card games by allowing pari-mutuel facilities to use “designated player” games. In 2019, the Seminole stopped making annual gaming payments to the state as a result.

That’s why any sports betting agreement in Florida must be part of a compact agreement between the tribe and state. Reinstating $400 million from the gaming payment will bring the state more money than sports betting.

“The most valuable piece out there that generates the most money for the state of Florida involves a compact with the Seminole tribe,” Dunbar said. “The governor has got to reach an agreement with the tribe.”

However, the pari-mutuel industry also has its supporters in the legislature. Even Dunbar admits that any agreement with the tribe will need to have a side piece worked out with the pari-mutuels.

“The pari-mutuel industry sits in a blocking position on any gaming compact unless they get their beaks wet, which is a regular phrase used in Florida,” Dunbar said. “In Florida, it’s going to involve pari-mutuels in some form or fashion just because of their political stroke.”

Complicating matters even further, a 2018 ballot proposition supported by the Seminole and Disney limited the legislature’s ability to expand gambling. Any gambling expansion not limited to tribal casinos or the lottery must be initiated by voters.

A Florida legislative proposal that might work

Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to show much interest in working out a compact with the Seminole. In 2019, he refused to sign off on a $500 million agreement worked out with the Seminole by Sen. Wilton Simpson.

Simpson is now Senate President. Hutson chairs the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries and has experience with the Seminole and gaming issues.

“Sen. Hutson knows all the players, knows all the issues and, in addition to the Senate President, is the most seasoned elected official as it relates to gaming issues,” Dunbar said.

However, compact negotiations are supposed to take place between the governor and tribal leaders. For Hutson to take the lead, he needs to know where the governor stands.

Hutson may be the one lawmaker who can work out a deal between all the interested parties. Dunbar said Florida’s sports teams have become increasingly vocal about sports betting, which further muddles matters.

“It’s complicated enough when there’s 30 pari-mutuels, plus the tribes, plus player banking folks, plus cruises to nowhere,” Dunbar said. “Now add the sports teams. It’s a cast of thousands when you’re talking about all the lobbyists involved.”

Why FL sports betting probably won’t happen this year

DeSantis and the legislature don’t have much incentive to act this year. Dunbar explained that, with a hot real estate market and businesses staying open during the pandemic when they were closed in many states, Florida doesn’t have the budget shortfalls of most states.

In fact, he said that there is more money projected to come in now than there was before the pandemic. Plus, Florida has $17 billion coming in federal COVID-19 relief.

“The governor has done a really good job keeping us open, and now getting us through the pandemic,” Dunbar said. “It’s crazy how well Florida weathered the storm. We just don’t need the money. Can we use the money? Sure. But we don’t need the money to balance the budget.”

Hutson might take a stab at reaching an agreement. Emails and calls to his office went unreturned. There’s also not much time for him to do so. The Florida legislature adjourns April 30.

Either way, Dunbar expects Floridians will have to wait until the state really needs the money before Florida makes a serious effort at legalizing sports betting.

“I just don’t see anything changing significantly that would override why the measures have failed in previous years. I don’t see anything compelling out there that warrants taking up the bandwidth in this legislature. When Florida has expanded gambling in the past, it’s only been from tremendous economic pressures. We just don’t have that right now.”

Photo by Joao Virissimo | Dreamstime.com
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Matthew Kredell

Matthew has covered efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling since 2007. His reporting on the legalization of sports betting began in 2010 with an article for Playboy Magazine on how the NFL was pushing US money overseas by fighting the expansion of regulated sports betting. A USC journalism alum, Matt started his career as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News and has written on a variety of topics for Playboy, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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