The Phoenix Flyer

With gambling expansion in disarray, FL Senate moves ahead with new gaming commission

By: - February 17, 2022 5:54 pm

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

Although Florida’s 2021 compact to expand gambling statewide was struck down in federal court, the Florida Senate Thursday forged ahead with development of a Florida Gaming Control Commission created alongside the compact to regulate expanded gambling.

The Nov. 22 ruling is being appealed, with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Justice trying to resurrect the compact.

State gambling laws have long been regulated by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is now transferring that responsibility to the new gaming commission.

Gambling run by the Seminole Tribe of Florida on its property is regulated by federal Indian gaming laws. Compacts can be negotiated between the state and the tribe to allow additional gaming beyond tribal property in exchange for payments to the state.

Since last year, Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas Republican, has expressed skepticism about the need to create a gaming commission after decades of doing without one. He reiterated that Thursday on the Senate floor.

“What does the Gaming Commission do now do that there’s no compact? Do they have a real job?” Brandes asked of Sen. Travis Hutson, a Volusia Republican who led the 2021 Legislature’s drive to bring sports betting and other new forms of gambling to Florida. “Is this the best job in the state of Florida, to be on the Gaming Commission?”

Hutson, sparring back, answered, “I think the best job in the state of Florida is to be a Florida senator.”

Brandes retorted, “You definitely have to do more work as a senator than you’re going have to do on the gaming commission.”

Continuing, Hutson said the duties of the new gaming commission currently are to shift from one state agency, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, to another one, a new division over pari-mutuels wagering (gaming co-located with racing facilities).

“Just to be clear,” Brandes said, “their job now is to move buildings or to create a new division? And manage backroom card games and cockfights in Miami?”

Hutson soldiered on: “They are going to set up that new agency, and then barring [pending court decisions], depending on what happens, we’re back under the old compact, so they have to make sure we’re regulating the old compact.”

The Senate voted 37-2 on the gaming commission legislation, with Brandes voting no along with Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat representing part of Duval County. The House would have to agree on the legislation.

The commission consists of five members, subject to Senate confirmation. The legislation deleted a requirement that each member of the commission be appointed from the five appellate court districts “in light of the Supreme Court’s request to create a new Sixth Appellate District,” according to a legislative analysis.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed three members for the five-person commission, all being associated with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. They are DBPR Secretary Julie Brown and two former DBPT executives, Charles Drago and Michael Yaworsky, according to the governor’s office. The other two seats are still vacant.

The “old compact” was adopted in 2010. It permitted the Seminole Tribe to engage in certain kinds of gambling with exclusivity, and the tribe paid the state $350 million a year for the privilege. In 2019, the tribe stopped paying, saying the state had reneged on its end of the agreement.

That led to the negotiation of a new compact with different rules. Non-tribal entities such as historic racing tracks and pari-mutuel facilities opposed the compact because it gave the tribe gambling opportunities not granted to others.

A federal court struck down the 2021 compact, negotiated last spring by DeSantis and Marcellus Osceola Jr., tribal chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, on grounds that it violates federal law on Indian gaming.

The compact had legalized statewide sports betting for the first time — the exclusive auspices of the Seminole Tribe — gave the tribe control over which pari-mutual facilities can offer sports betting, authorized the tribe to build new casinos, and allowed it start offering formerly illegal games at its casinos.

Like all the expanded gambling, sports betting has been shut down since the court ruling vacated the compact, but previously authorized gambling at Seminole casinos, state-authorized pari-mutuel facilities and cardrooms continues.

The “old compact” Hutson referred to was adopted in 2010. It permitted the Seminole Tribe to engage in certain kinds of gambling with exclusivity, and the tribe paid the state $350 million a year for the privilege. In 2019, the tribe stopped paying, saying the state had reneged on its end of the agreement.

Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said Thursday tribes generally are not subject to state regulatory laws and he was not sure how Florida’s gaming commission would affect the tribe’s gambling operations, if at all.

He said the tribe continues to make payments to the state under the 2021 compact, pending the outcome of the appeal of the ruling that vacated the agreement. The 2021 compact calls for payments of roughly $500 million a year, and a minimum of $2.5 billion over five years.

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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.