Floridians thought they controlled gambling. Turns out, that was a sucker bet | Editorial

It looks like Miami Beach probably has gotten a temporary reprieve from having a casino at the Fontainebleau Resort jammed down the throats of residents by the Legislature. That’s great news.

But the special legislative session on gambling that starts Monday still is likely to produce a big expansion of gambling in Florida through a $500 million agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would bring mobile sports betting to Florida and allow for Las Vegas-style casinos at all tribal facilities. And it opens the door to even more. That’s some seriously bad news.

Let’s start with our local reprieve. Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson said in an interview with Jim DeFede at CBSMiami, that the Legislature will not be considering an option for allowing casino licenses to be moved during the special session.

He said lawmakers won’t consider allowing “portability” of gambling licenses, knocking the possibility of ex-President Trump’s Doral golf resort getting a casino license and Miami billionaire Jeffrey Soffer getting one for his family’s Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach.

That’s a relief to Miami Beach. City officials have been worried that Soffer would succeed in his shock-and-awe campaign to move the license for his Big Easy casino from Hallandale Beach, in Broward County, to the Fontainebleau. Soffer pitched Florida lawmakers on the idea this year by inviting them to his superyacht and introducing them to football star Tom Brady and his wife, model Gisele Bündchen.

Miami Beach leaders loudly and repeatedly have said they do not want a casino there. Neither do we. It would be bad for local businesses, bad for the community and economically unnecessary.

It’s complicated

But don’t exhale just yet. The Seminole agreement, in addition to launching a statewide expansion of gambling and making Florida the largest state in the nation to legalize sports betting, keeps the door open to move those gambling licenses in the not-too-distant future.

There are other problems, too. The deal would all but certainly end up in court on grounds that it violates a 2018 amendment to the Florida Constitution giving voters control over gambling expansion. And it sets up the possibility for even more online gambling in the state within 36 months from now.

Here’s how:

The thrust of the agreement is to give the Tribe exclusive rights to sports betting in the state for 30 years, with all bets routed through computer servers on tribal land as a way of bypassing the 2018 amendment. In exchange, the Tribe would send at least $500 million a year to the state.

But that’s not all it says. There’s also a provision specifying that the deal will not be voided if the state allows gambling licenses to be moved. One condition: The new casino location must be at least 15 miles from the Tribe’s Hard Rock casino in Broward County. Both the Fontainebleau and Trump Doral fall conveniently outside of that boundary, according to the anti-gambling group No Casinos.

So Soffer’s dream — and Miami Beach’s nightmare — isn’t dead. It’s just deferred.

Voters’ wished ignored

Now on to the sports-betting part of this equation. The deal — which has been signed by Gov. DeSantis, but needs approvals from the Legislature and federal government — would mean anyone over 21 in Florida with an app on a mobile device would be able to bet on games, teams and individual performances including motor sports events and Olympic competitions. Existing casinos and parimutuel poker rooms get a piece of the action. They’d be allowed to have their own brand on the mobile sports app and get 60 percent of the revenues, though all bets would still go through the Tribe’s servers.

All of this ignores Amendment 3, the 2018 constitutional amendment that passed with a whopping 71 percent of voters. It says only the voters have the right to expand casino gambling. It only took lawmakers four years to come up with a plan to bypass it.

The theory: Sports betting doesn’t need statewide voter approval if it’s done on tribal property. Poof! There goes that pesky part of the Constitution.

But federal law says sports betting is Class III gambling, a form of gambling found in casinos. That most likely means Amendment 3 applies.

There will be lawsuits. Miami’s Norman Braman, a billionaire, has vowed to put his dollars behind efforts to defend Amendment 3 in court, if that becomes necessary. He’s aligned with developer Armando Codina, a major donor to Republican candidates and causes. And they have been working with Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been watching the Florida Legislature lately to see, once again, elected officials’ utter disregard for voters.

But there’s one more thing you should now about this deal. Near the end of the 75-page agreement, the Tribe and state agree to return to the bargaining table within 36 months to talk about even more online gambling for the Tribe. This time it would be to allow mobile bets not just on sports but on “all types” of the Tribe’s authorized games. That means playing full-on casino games would be as simple on opening up an app on your phone.

This is not the first agreement — known as a compact — with the Tribe on gambling. The last compact broke down in May 2019 when the Tribe said the state had failed to “aggressively” enforce its promise to keep blackjack a game exclusively offered at Seminole casinos. And it’s no secret the state wants the revenue from the Tribe for gambling that is going on with or without an agreement.

But this deal runs roughshod over the voters.

When DeSantis signed the agreement last month, he called it a “win-win.” That’s simply not true. The voters — the more than 70 percent who said in 2018 they want control over how much gambling goes on in the state — are the losers here.

The top leader in the state apparently sees nothing wrong with that. The will of the people? That’s just something to get around.