Pandemic may pave the way for gaming expansion

by | Mar 1, 2021

 

With Florida staring down a budget impacted by the pandemic, could the expansion of gambling in the state be a silver lining?

Like many states across the country, Florida’s economy bore the brunt of COVID-19. Lockdowns put many workers out of business, particularly devastating the hospitality industry. Shutdowns also impacted Florida business owners, who were forced to watch their dreams come to a close just like the doors at the establishment they built. The impact has been severe across various sectors, leaving the Florida facing its fair share of headwinds and hurdles heading into 2021.

While tourism has kept the economy afloat, Florida still faces a $2 billion budget shortfall this upcoming Legislative Session, according to state economists. Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle will be asked to make some difficult choices and find cuts anywhere they can in the coming weeks.

With the session officially starting today, legislators will convene at the State Capitol to decide how best to handle the Sunshine State’s cloudy future. Despite the uncertainty, officials may find their answer on how to overcome the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic in an upcoming committee. Though slashes in funding are inevitable, State Representative Chip LaMarca and State Senator Jeff Brandes may have an ace up their sleeves.

Seeking alternative ways to rake in revenue, the Republican lawmakers have filed several bills aimed at expanding sports betting across the state. Their proposals would bring legal sports wagering to Florida, allowing people to place bets on collegiate and professional sports. If passed, it would bring in additional revenue that could be used to plug some of the deficit holes left by the virus.

LaMarca is teaming up with Democratic State Representative Anika Omphroy to bring online sports betting to the forefront. The Broward Republican is pushing two measures (HB 1317/HB 1321) to establish the foundation by which pools will operate through the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), as well as licensing agreements and a new tax structure. Under his proposal, one may apply for a sports wagering license through DBPR’s Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering if they are a tribal property, pari-mutuel facility, or professional sports venue. LaMarca’s legislation would also separate sports wagering from falling under the umbrella of “casino gambling.”

Brandes is also doubling down on legalizing sports betting in the state, again spearheading legislation (SB 392) that would allow Floridians over the age of 21 to wager money or items on a sports event, with bets being placed with the state’s Department of Lottery or a licensee. The Pinellas Republican also filed related measures (SB 394/396) that would set the application fee and renewal fee for the license at $100,000 and impose a sport betting revenue tax of 15 percent.

While the bipartisan proposals seem like a no-brainer, getting these bills across the finish line has been labeled a Sisyphean task by many.

LaMarca and Brandes have been dealt an excellent hand, but both Republicans are facing a “gutshot” with The Seminole tribe still controlling Florida’s gambling scene. The group has a longstanding deal with the state regarding casino gambling. Their agreement, The Seminole Tribe Compact, grants exclusivity for certain types of gambling (slots, roulette, blackjack, etc.) in the state. The Tribe has never backed sports wagering.

“We’d be naïve to not recognize the influence of the Seminole Tribe,” said South Florida sports lawyer Darren Heitner. “They would not necessarily want widespread sports gambling, particularly if online operators are able to operate and the Tribe is cut out of it.”

An uphill battle during any other legislative cycle, the fallout from the coronavirus could be the catalyst that takes sports betting — and gambling as a whole — off the backburner. With GOP leadership still determining how to best patch together a fiscal budget, relaxing restrictions on gambling could generate hundreds of millions in revenue to offset shortages. And with illegal betting already taking place in Florida, a gaming expansion could help keep these funds from leaving the state.

“Currently Floridians are sending millions of dollars out of the state every year, mostly overseas to foreign countries, because Florida has failed to bring legal sports wagering to our state,” LaMarca told The Capitolist. We have an opportunity to keep that money here in Florida. Allowing online and retail sports betting to operate legally potentially translates into millions in revenue for our state. That’s money from Floridians that should be invested in Florida.”

Heitner agreed, stating that the move would add much needed revenue and put Florida riding shotgun with other states that currently allow legal sports betting.

“20 states and Washington D.C. are currently allowing some form of legal sports betting within their borders. Meanwhile, Florida sits on the sidelines for no justifiable reason,” Heitner added. “It is time for a change so that consumers are afforded the same enjoyment as individuals in other states. This would enable the State of Florida to add a new stream of revenue for its ailing budget, and would curb illegal betting in favor of regulated, transparent wagering.”

Aside from bolstering sectors like education, the bills up for debate this session could open the doors to other forms of secure betting. Sports betting could serve as the perfect entry point that could be expanded to include other forms of gambling, and could possibly be accomplished without the Tribe losing their influence on the industry.

Whether or not the legislature will have the appetite to open the floodgates to Florida bettors is still to be determined, but lawmakers will have to grapple with the pros and cons and decide if they want to once again fold, or go all-in and see how the chips fall.

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