Florida gambling drama builds; sports-betting interests unveil constitutional amendment effort

By: - June 24, 2021 4:31 pm

Sports betting line at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images 2016

Update: The Florida Division of Elections just approved and posted the proposed sports-betting initiative, allowing a petition drive for a constitutional amendment backed by the sports-betting industry to begin immediately.

A 2022 ballot initiative to legalize sports betting in Florida regardless of the state’s newly ratified gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida is being processed by the Florida Division of Elections.

“The ballot initiative known as Sports and Event Betting is currently in the review and approval process,” said Ryan Ash, deputy director of external affairs at the Secretary of State’s office, which houses the Division of Elections.

Soon after that statement, the Division of Elections approved and posted the proposed constitutional amendment, titled 21-13.

Unconfirmed reports of the ballot initiative first appeared in SportsHandle.com and Florida Politics. The Florida Phoenix has been following developments of the sports betting competition around the country and confirmed Thursday that sports-betting giants DraftKings and FanDuel are fueling the campaign to legalize sports betting statewide.

The summary of initiative 21-13 says it would authorize “sports and event betting under Florida law at professional sports venues and pari-mutuel facilities and statewide via online sports betting platforms by entities authorized to conduct online sports betting, and by Native American tribes with a Florida gaming compact, only for persons age 21 years or older. Requires legislative action to regulate sports betting. Legislature may tax betting revenues, and all such taxes are required to supplement the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund.”

Read the full text here.

The proposed amendment to the Constitution is sponsored by a political action committee named Florida Education Champions, which registered with the Secretary of State’s office on June 2. The PAC lists its interests as “political.”

Officers of the new PAC are: chairman David Johnson of Tallahassee, whose website describes him as a Florida-based Republican general strategic consultant to candidate campaigns and initiatives and a strategic advisor to corporations and associations, treasurer Rich Heitmeyer, and deputy treasurers Abby Dupree and Stephanie Zottoli. Heitmeyer, Dupree and Zottoli are CPAs and partners at Carroll and Company CPAs in Tallahassee.

Johnson’s website further describes him as a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida and founder of the David Johnson Group (DJGroup) in 2003.

The group’s spokeswoman, Christina Johnson, told the Phoenix online sports-betting giants DraftKings and FanDuel are driving the campaign to amend the state Constitution.

“Yes, those entities are going to be supportive of this effort,” Christina Johnson said. She is president of On 3 Public Relations and is married to David Johnson.

In an emailed statement, she added, “The Florida Education Champions committee is comprised of likeminded individuals invested in increasing public education funding, without raising taxes, in Florida, by expanding sports betting in the state. The committee will be actively fundraising, targeting donors who support our mission to get this pro-education ballot amendment before the voters in November 2022.”

Having gained a green light from the Division of Elections, the committee may begin collecting petition signatures for its referendum immediately. If it gains the requisite signatures (891,589) and its verbiage passes muster with the Florida Supreme Court (that review is triggered once 222,898 signatures are gathered), the measure would be on the general ballot in November 2022.

John Sowinski, chairman of No Casinos, who helped win passage of Amendment 3 — Voter Control of Gambling — said sports betting is about gambling, not about education.

“One eternal truth is that expanding gambling always results in even more expanded gambling. We oppose the sports betting amendment announced today, and are confident that Florida voters will reject it, should it get to the ballot,” Sowinski wrote.

“Like the Compact currently pending before the Department of Interior, we oppose this measure. The type of modern internet sports betting authorized in this amendment is not simply betting on outcomes and point spreads. It includes highly addictive ‘props betting’ continually pinging gamblers through smartphone apps to entice them into betting on things like ‘will the first play of the next series of downs be a run or a pass’ or ‘will Tiger make this putt.’ Countries that have this type of betting have shown troubling spikes in teen gambling and addiction, a recipe for long-term social and economic costs that far outweigh any perceived benefits.”

DraftKings and FanDuel, platforms for fantasy sports and sports betting, did not respond to the Phoenix’s requests for confirmation.

The Florida Phoenix earlier wrote that those gambling platforms and others are racing to make deals in various states to grab as much market share in sports betting as they can as the industry rapidly expands. The market opened wide following a pivotal 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

DraftKings alone is on track to gross $2.9 billion to $4.3 billion a year when sports betting reaches “maturity,” defined as 65 percent of the U.S. population having legal access to it, according to DraftKings’ report to investors in March. The report forecasts the sports betting market in the United States alone is worth $22 billion annually.

The gambling compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe was ratified by the Florida Legislature on May 19. It grants exclusive rights to the tribe to run sports betting statewide as long as wagers placed in Florida via cellphones and other electronic devices are processed through servers on tribal land. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the major gaming bills approved during a special session on May 25.

The ballot initiative would amount to an end-run around that exclusivity. Otherwise, Florida’s 2018 constitutional amendment 3 — blocking expanded gambling except by statewide referenda — could pose a legal obstacle to implementation of the compact. If adopted, a constitutional amendment approving statewide sports betting would allow non-tribal interests to establish themselves in Florida.

SportsHandle reported the Florida compact was transmitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior for federal review on May 26, one day after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the amended compact ratified by the Legislature.

However, the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs told the Phoenix it received the compact on Monday, 4 1/2 weeks after it was ratified in Florida. Philip Bristol, policy advisor in the BIA’s Office of Indian Gaming, told the Phoenix the 45-day clock on approving or disapproving the compact began on Monday.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.