February 23, 2024

Florida fires back in its fight over sports betting

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative leaders late Friday urged the Florida Supreme Court to reject a challenge to a deal that allowed the Seminole Tribe to offer online sports betting statewide, saying it does not violate a 2018 constitutional amendment that restricted casino gambling.

State lawyers filed a 55-page brief that disputed arguments by the pari-mutuel companies West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp., which have fought the sports-betting plan in state and federal courts.

The battle centers on part of a 2021 deal between the state and the tribe that allowed gamblers to place mobile sports wagers anywhere in the state, with bets handled by computer servers on tribal property. The deal said bets “using a mobile app or other electronic device, shall be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe.”

The pari-mutuel companies contend that allowing gamblers who are off tribal property to place sports bets violates the 2018 constitutional amendment, which said, in part, “for casino gambling to be authorized under Florida law, it must be approved by Florida voters.”

The deal between the state and the tribe, known as a compact, was negotiated by DeSantis and tribal leaders and ratified by the Legislature. It did not go before voters.

In Friday’s brief, lawyers in Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office argued the Supreme Court should reject the challenge for a number of reasons, including that sports betting “is not ‘casino gambling’ as that term is defined in the Florida Constitution.”

The brief dug into part of the amendment that defined casino gambling as “the types of games typically found in casinos.” It said “the types of games typically found in casinos was fixed at the time” the constitutional amendment passed — and that those games did not include sports betting.

“Petitioners (the pari-mutuel companies) allege that — at least today — sports betting is, as an empirical matter, often conducted in casinos,” said the state’s brief, filed on behalf of DeSantis, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner. “That hinges on the theory that the typicality requirement looks to modern circumstances, not the circumstances voters would have understood at ratification.”

But the lawsuit filed in September accused DeSantis and the Legislature of exceeding their power by allowing sports betting off tribal lands, describing it as an “abuse of authority.”

“The amendment is an enduring grant to the people themselves – and only them --- to authorize new gambling in Florida,” the lawsuit said. “The constitutional provision should be interpreted for sports betting as it exists today,”

The constitutional amendment applies to types of casino gambling that are considered “Class III” under a federal law known as the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. As examples, Class III gambling includes blackjack, craps and roulette.

The 2021 gambling deal, along with giving the Seminoles control of sports betting, allowed the tribe to offer craps and roulette at its casinos. Also, the deal would allow the Seminoles to add three casinos on tribal property in Broward County.

In exchange, the tribe pledged to pay the state a minimum of $2.5 billion over the first five years and possibly billions of dollars more throughout the three-decade pact. The deal also added Florida to numerous states that jumped into sports betting after a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for such wagering in New Jersey.

The tribe in 2021 briefly launched an app to allow sports wagering throughout the state, but the app was shut down amid a federal lawsuit filed by the pari-mutuel companies. A federal appeals court this summer upheld a decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees gambling on tribal lands, to allow the compact to move forward.

The pari-mutuel companies plan to fight the appeals court’s decision at the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Friday gave the companies’ attorneys until Feb. 8 to file a petition.

With the state and federal legal battles pending, the tribe on Nov. 7 relaunched a sports-betting app.

Among other arguments in Friday’s brief, the state’s attorneys wrote that the sports-betting deal is covered by an exception in the 2018 constitutional amendment.

That exception involves the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The constitutional amendment said nothing “shall be construed to limit the ability of the state or Native American tribes to negotiate gaming compacts pursuant to the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act for the conduct of casino gambling on tribal lands.”

“The off-reservation wagering provisions were an important and lucrative bargaining chip in the compact negotiations,” the state’s brief said. “Without them, the compact might well have never concluded — thus authorizing nothing.”

West Flagler and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. have contended they could be hurt financially if the tribe is able to offer online sports betting statewide.

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