TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reached an agreement with the state's Seminole Tribe on Friday that would greatly expand gambling in the state, adding legalized sports wagering as that once mostly illegal activity continues to grow nationwide.
The tribe would be allowed to offer sports gambling at its casinos in South Florida and near Tampa and to license horse tracks, jai-alai frontons and former dog tracks to accept such wagers on its behalf for a share of the income, the Republican governor announced.
The tribe will also be allowed to introduce craps and roulette at its seven casinos, including the popular Hard Rock near Fort Lauderdale. The state would get at least $2.5 billion from the tribe over the first five years and at least $6 billion by 2030. DeSantis, in a statement, said he expects the pact to create 2,200 new jobs.
If the agreement passes the state Legislature and a challenge by a group of Miami business leaders, Florida will become just the latest state to legalize sports gambling since a 2018 Supreme Court ruling lifted a federal ban on such wagering outside Nevada and a few other states. Today, about half the states and the District of Columbia have legalized betting on sports in some form.
“This historic compact expands economic opportunity, tourism, and recreation, and bolsters the fiscal success of our state in one fell swoop for the benefit of all Floridians and Seminoles alike,” DeSantis said. “Our agreement establishes the framework to generate billions in new revenue and untold waves of positive economic impact."
The 30-year compact between the state and tribe will be considered by the Legislature at a special session that begins May 17. It also must be approved by the Seminole tribal council and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees tribal gambling operations.
The Seminoles, invoking their sovereignty as a tribal nation, began their gambling operations with a high-stakes bingo parlor in 1979 and have been expanding ever since, adding slot machines, poker, blackjack and other card games. The tribe, once poor, now pays each of its 4,100 members, including children, more than $100,000 annually in dividends and owns the Hard Rock brand worldwide.
“The Seminole Tribe of Florida is committed to a mutually beneficial gaming compact with the State of Florida,” said Marcellus Osceola Jr., the tribe’s chairman.
Miami billionaire Norman Braman, a leader of the group of business owners and others opposed to gambling's expansion as a detriment to South Florida, said Friday they will try to block the agreement in the Legislature.
If that fails, he said they will challenge it in court as a violation of a 2018 initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters that says casino-style gambling can’t be expanded off tribal lands unless it garners at least 60% support on a statewide ballot measure.
He believes the compact would allow the owner of the iconic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach to transfer a gambling license he holds at a former dog track to that resort and open a casino there over that city's objections. The city believes a casino would increase crime and harm established restaurants, clubs and other businesses.
“Tallahassee wants to override the wishes of the local community,” said Braman, a former owner of the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles.
It is unclear if there will be strong opposition in the Legislature. Democratic state Rep. Joseph Geller has long advocated for a new agreement, but he cautioned Friday that his party members would examine how new revenue will be used. He said some should address gambling addiction.
Republicans control the Legislature, but religious conservatives could balk at the agreement. Democratic support would offset that possibility.
“We’ll have to see what it says,” Geller said. “The devil’s in the details.”
Florida's original compact with the Seminoles gave the tribe exclusive rights to slot machines and blackjack. In exchange, the tribe paid the state tens of millions of dollars — which all but dried up after it expired in 2015 .
Then-Gov. Rick Scott reached a new deal with the tribe, but it died because many lawmakers believed its expansion of gambling went too far.
Florida has long had gambling in the form of horse racing, jai-alai and, until last Jan. 1, dog racing, which was banned by voters in a 2018 ballot initiative. Poker has been added at those facilities over the last 20 years.
But it has also been leery of casino gambling and is a state with areas that are highly conservative and religious populations. Their legislators have traditionally opposed any expansion of gambling.
“Florida is a diverse state and our Senators and constituents have many different opinions, beliefs and convictions regarding gaming,” Senate President Wilton Simpson wrote in a memo to his members Friday. “The fact remains, Florida has a significant gaming footprint, and I think if we are going to regulate these activities, it should be within a structure that is fair and equitable to all parties.”
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. AP writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.