Florida sports betting could skip public vote, say lawyers

Florida sports betting public
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The road to sports betting in Florida is blocked by a constitutional amendment requiring 60 percent approval by referendum. Even though public opinion appears high enough to meet it, it’s unlikely stakeholders would stump up the cash to fund it, says Florida-based gaming lawyer Marc Dunbar – but there could be other ways around it.

 

There is no doubt that Florida could become one of the most fruitful sports betting markets in the US – bringing significant taxes and tourists to the state. Since 2018 however, the legislature has been operating under the assumption that sports betting expansion can only be achieved if 60 percent of the public approve it via referendum.

This near-insurmountable hurdle was erected by the state’s largest gaming stakeholders, the Seminole tribe, who (in league with Disney and other religious interests) spent $36m lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would block any expansion of “casino gambling” without public approval – and so protect their monopoly position.

At the time, Florida senate president Bill Galvano urged voters to reject the amendment, saying to would be “game over” for sports betting. It passed by a landslide majority of 71 to 29 nonetheless.

However, as Florida lawmakers return for the first legislative session of 2020, betting advocates are beginning to question whether the wording of the amendment is so clear cut. Writing in Forbes, Florida-based gaming lawyer Daniel Wallach has made the cogent case that as sports betting may not be considered by “casino gambling” by Florida courts.

As of November 2018 when the amendment was passed, sports betting was not “typically found in casinos” across the US, he says – which the legislation would require it to be, to fall under “casino gambling.”

According to Senator Jeff Brandes, who filed three sports betting bills before Christmas, it’s possible that sports betting could bypass the casino sector entirely and simply be offered through the state lottery. “I feel like we can show many examples of other states using the lottery for sports betting and it has nothing to do with casinos,” said Brandes.

Whether legal lexicology is enough to trump realpolitik remains to be seen. On the one hand political appetite for sports betting is palpable; the American Gaming Association estimates the sector could bring in over $100m in annual taxes.

Moreover, poll after poll show a majority of the public would be in favour of sports betting. On the other, it’s not clear that anti-gaming forces unleashed during the previous campaign can now be put back in the box.

“Oddly, the Seminoles may have seriously miscalculated here, as I am relatively certain that they desire to operate and control any sports betting that happens in Florida,” said local gaming lawyer David Romanik.

“Yet the main opposition to that would be their partners in the 2018 amendment – the evangelical zealots that ran Disney’s anti-gambling campaign in 2018 who claim that the 2018 amendment bars the legislature from approving sports betting.”

John Sowinski, head of the multi-million dollar “No Casinos” campaign group which pushed for the 2018 amendment, said he expected the gaming industry to find “creative ways” to get around it, but maintains the legislation is “crystal clear.”

“When it comes to casino gambling – and yes, sports betting falls under that definition – the voters are in charge.”of the public would be in favour of sports betting. On the other, it’s not clear that anti-gaming forces unleashed during the previous campaign can now be put back in the box.

“Oddly, the Seminoles may have seriously miscalculated here, as I am relatively certain that they desire to operate and control any sports betting that happens in Florida,” said local gaming lawyer David Romanik.

“Yet the main opposition to that would be their partners in the 2018 amendment – the evangelical zealots that ran Disney’s anti-gambling campaign in 2018 who claim that the 2018 amendment bars the legislature from approving sports betting.”

John Sowinski, head of the multi-million dollar “No Casinos” campaign group which pushed for the 2018 amendment, said he expected the gaming industry to find “creative ways” to get around it, but maintains the legislation is “crystal clear.” “When it comes to casino gambling – and yes, sports betting falls under that definition – the voters are in charge.”


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