The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board | Palm Beach Post
Just when it appeared Florida was on its way to becoming a gambling mecca, a federal judge invalidated an agreement between the state and the Seminoles that would have given the tribe a monopoly on online sports betting here.
On Nov. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Dabney L. Friedrich ordered the U.S. Department of Interior to throw out the 2021 gaming compact Gov. Ron DeSantis reached with the tribe. The judge apparently shared the misgivings of many of the compact’s critics, who saw the deal as a way around the Florida Constitution and federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, to expand gambling in Florida. The ruling not only halts online betting but blocks the tribe’s planned Hard Rock Casino expansions.
The judge made clear he didn’t buy the argument that the tribe could host online sports statewide as long as the servers taking the bets were located on tribal grounds. While recognizing the language of federal law, the judge also upheld the will of Florida voters who amended the state constitution to give them greater say over gambling expansion.
Subscriber Exclusive: Palm Beach Kennel Club president hopes sports betting happens despite court ruling
“This ruling says what should’ve been obvious to everyone from the beginning — that Florida’s Constitution gives only Florida voters, not politicians in Tallahassee and Washington, the power to expand gambling in our state,” John Sowinski, executive director of No Casinos, said after the ruling came down. No Casinos, an anti-gambling nonprofit, was one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit that stopped the compact in its tracks.
Admittedly, we were skeptical when the compact was first announced earlier this year. Given, the state’s history of opposing constitutional amendments to expand gambling, we believed that the state should have pushed for more than what the tribe offered, which was less than the $3 billion-over-seven-years proposal made to then Gov. Rick Scott.
The ruling puts the state back to square one. Instead of operating under a gaming compact that would give the state $2.5 billion over five years, Florida finds itself under a 20-year compact reached in 2010 when Charlie Crist was governor. The judge’s order doesn’t foreclose online sports betting in Florida but any new compact must limit online betting to Indian lands. The only way those bets can be expanded statewide is through a citizen’s initiative approved by Florida voters.
For now the ruling leaves the governor and tribe on the sidelines, since neither was a party to the two lawsuits that invalidated the compact. The fate of the compact now depends on whether the Biden administration, which approved the ill-fated compact, will appeal Friedrich’s decision. That irony wasn’t lost on one Republican lawmaker who acknowledged online betting might not pass legal muster but criticized the Biden administration for failing to make a case for keeping casino expansion.
“I don’t know if Joe Biden is intentionally screwing Florida but this didn’t have to happen,” state Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican who helped steer the compact through the Legislature, told POLITICO. “Their failure to argue it is inconceivable and unacceptable…. Joe Biden owes the state of Florida $500 million a year forever.”
Despite the ruling, Florida remains an attractive target for gambling interests, and voters may get another chance to have their voices heard, if organizers of two proposed constitutional amendments can get enough signatures by February. One, backed by the Las Vegas Sands, would put new casinos at existing cardrooms located more than 130 miles away from Seminole Tribe properties. The second initiative — Florida Education Champions — would allow online sports betting throughout the state and is bankrolled by Draft Kings and FanDuel, which operate online sports betting outside of Florida.
With more than a decade of experience, you’d think state leaders would have a better handle on how to assemble a deal that would pass federal court hurdles — and the smell test of more Floridians. To get back on track, Gov. DeSantis should use the upcoming legislative session to craft a better compact that works for the tribe and Florida voters.
In last Sunday’s editorial, “Lake O operating plan about the best option of tough choices,” the Post inaccurately referred to reductions in the amount of water to be released from the lake. The figures given actually referred to the reduced number of releases, not the percentage of water volume.