Gambling: Feds’ silence signals green light on compact between FL and Seminole Tribe

Taking no action within 45-day review period allows multibillion-dollar, 30-year deal to proceed

By: - August 6, 2021 12:18 pm

Seminole Hard Rock Casino, Tampa. Statewide sports betting is on hold, pending a court ruling. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images. May 2021

Florida’s 30-year, multibillion-dollar gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe appears to have passed its federal review by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Friday marks Day 46 since the compact was submitted by the Tribe for a 45-day review period. Philip Bristol with federal Office of Indian Gaming told the Phoenix on June 24 that the compact was received on June 21 and that Aug. 5 marked the end of the review period.

Neither the BIA nor Seminole Gaming, representing the Tribe, indicated by Friday morning that the compact had been “affirmatively approved” by the BIA. Industry experts told the Phoenix that the absence of an announced decision will mean the compact is simply deemed approved by default, as tribal compacts sometimes are.

The status of the compact will be entirely official once the BIA publishes notice about it in the Federal Register, required within 90 days of the end of the review period.

Spokesman Gary Bitner said Seminole Gaming likely would comment on the status of the compact sometime Friday.

The gambling compact between the State of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, signed April 23 by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Tribe Council Chairman Marcellus Osceola, was ratified by the Florida Legislature May 19 after being amended to exclude a provision for future casino-style gambling online (live gambling with other players via the internet).

The compact grants the Tribe authority to offer formerly illegal games such as craps and roulette at its casinos and exclusive control over future sports betting, a multibillion-dollar market popular around the world. Giant sports betting companies such as FanDuel and DraftKings are pushing to circumvent that exclusivity by asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment in 2022 legalizing the game statewide. They bankrolled the effort with $20 million in campaign donations in late June, just before a new law effective July 1 limited such donations to $3,000.

In exchange for the new casino games, control of sports betting and other benefits, the Tribe pledged to pay the state at least $2.5 billion over the next five years and $500 million a year or more for the duration of the 30-year compact.

The compact’s most controversial component legalizes mobile sports betting (individuals placing bets on mobile devices, but not engaging with other players as in online gambling).

To circumvent Florida’s 2018 constitutional amendment banning new gambling without prior voter approval, the compact devises a “hub and spoke” structure that allows bets to be placed anywhere in the state as long as they are processed on servers on tribal land. That structure purports to not violate the constitutional amendment by deeming the betting to have occurred only on tribal property, not statewide.

Former high-ranking BIA official George Skibine predicted the BIA would not affirmatively approve the compact because of the debate, and anticipated lawsuits, over the hub-and-spoke approach to statewide sports betting.

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, said his organization intends to challenge the compact in state and federal courts regardless whether it is affirmatively approved or deemed approved by virtue of the review period expiring without the BIA announcing a decision.

The compact also facilitates future fantasy sports, which did not win approval in the legislative special session but which Senate President Wilton Simpson said will be up for further consideration when the Legislature reconvenes next month for pre-session committee hearings. The regular 2022 session begins Jan. 11.

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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.