Floridians from across the state gathered in the courtyard of the Florida Capitol building to oppose the 2021 Gaming Compact. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
Carrying signs saying “No More Casinos!” and “This is All Unconstitutional!,” about 100 Floridians trekked to the state Capitol Tuesday to protest a multi-billion dollar gambling compact that is coming close to fruition in the Legislature.
“We have concerns that this is sidestepping what the voters voted on with Amendment 3,” said Joey McKinnon, who traveled from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. He referenced the 2018 constitutional amendment that required voters to approve gambling expansion in Florida.
But lawmakers in a special session this week are solidifying a gambling expansion package pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Senate on Tuesday approved ratified the gaming agreement – moving it a step closer to final approval. The House is expected to vote Wednesday.
“We are here to let our voices be heard and make sure that promises are kept but we still want to see a better deal than what we’re getting,” McKinnon said in an interview with the Florida Phoenix outside the the Capitol building.
The gambling expansion guarantees at least $2.5 billion in revenue to the state within five years. If approved by the Legislature, McKinnon wants to ensure those profits earned from the expansion benefit the people of Florida.
“We want to make sure the revenue from this is fair and equitable and that it’s going to go in the communities that need help,” he said.
Advocates against the compact are relying on the House to reject gambling legislation and urged people at the rally Tuesday to visit lawmakers’ offices in the Capitol to speak in opposition.
The compact between DeSantis and the Tribe would allow residents at least 21 years old to wager on collegiate, pro, international, Olympic and other sports at seven casinos in partnership with pari-mutuel facilities, according to the 2021 Gaming Compact.
The compact would also include sports betting exclusively operated by the tribe or contracted pari-mutuels, while expanding availability of casino games such as craps, roulette, slots, blackjack, poker, and more.
Meanwhile, opponents warned that more gambling options, such as the addition of sports wagering and other casino games, negatively impacts people in poor communities in Florida.
“It looks like they can have slot machines now,” said John Stemberger, an attorney and president of Florida Family Action.
“You’re talking about the crack cocaine of gambling being in some of the poorest neighbors all over Florida. We do not need this.”
Gambling has negative outcomes for children and families from low-income backgrounds, said Brandon Peters, a Tampa Democrat, who spoke at the rally.
“Those who can least afford to lose money in casinos, represent the lion share of casino profits. Now, if any politician voting on these issues thinks that is good for their county or their district, I like to meet them,” he added. “Because poor people getting poorer is the opposite of lifting up our poorest communities.”
State Rep. Mike Beltran, a Republican representing part of Hillsborough County, plans to vote against the gaming compact, he said, adding that his district already has enough casinos within close range from one another.
“I look at the map, there are five places within an hour where you can gamble. So, we really do not need to expand it,” he said. “The Tribe is doing more gambling; the pari-mutuels are doing more gambling.”
As a lawyer, Beltran has seen a lot of cases involving gambling issues such as unfair practices from casinos and “money laundering,” he said.
“This was an easy decision for me… I said I was going to oppose gambling expansion in Florida. I’ll be voting against the compact,” Beltran said.
Marilyn Rivera, a Latino mother, traveled with a group of people from Miami and spoke about the dangers of gambling addiction among families.
“Leave Florida alone!” she shouted. “Gambling brings financial breakdown. Like many wives and mothers, I have a special interest in families and relationships. And I am sensitized to the effect gambling has on those who become addicted to it.”
“We drove eight hours to be here and we’re driving eight hours back today…this is important,” Rivera said.
John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, said most Floridians approved Amendment 3, the 2018 constitutional amendment that required voters to approve gambling expansion in Florida.
Sowinski began his advocacy work with the organization in 1994. “Amendment 3 said if it’s casino gambling, we are locking the door and keeping the key…that’s what voters did,” he said.
“What this compact does is in violation, not just of our state’s constitution, but most importantly of the sacred trust that elected officials have to uphold the constitution that we enact.”
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