The Wrap: Is DeSantis headed for a Charlie Brown moment?

by | May 9, 2021

Every weekend, we take a look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, policy and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”

Lawmakers may snap the ball, but will the courts yank it away before DeSantis can kick it?

While it may be tempting to write-off Florida Governor Ron DeSantis‘s foray into a Gaming Compact with the Seminole Tribe as another attempt by Charlie Brown to kick the football before Lucy pulls it away from him, he may actually get a solid foot on the ball. Then again, some legal experts think he’s about to take a spill.

If DeSantis gets help from lawmakers and the court, the 2021 Gaming Compact will primarily be known for two things: legalizing sports betting in Florida, and giving DeSantis a feather in his cap for being able to pull together a blockbuster deal that will generate billions in gaming revenue over the next three decades. Not everyone will be happy about it, though. Especially No Casinos, which led the charge to give voters a voice in all matters related to gaming expansions.

If DeSantis fails, either in the legislature or through the courts, he’ll face that iconic “Charlie Brown / Lucy and the football” moment and go flying head-over-heels, ending up on his back, while the football – an elusive gaming deal – is pulled away from him at the last moment.

The pressure that can be brought to bear on lawmakers by both DeSantis and his allies in legislative leadership could prove difficult to ignore. DeSantis doesn’t even have to do all that much at the moment except be himself, and continue to play the role he’s earned as a conservative champion who is fast becoming a household name, not just in Florida, but across the country. What self-respecting Republican lawmaker wants to fall out of favor with the guy from his or her home state who is currently considered the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination? At the moment, DeSantis and Trump are neck-and-neck in terms of odds-on-favorites, and they’re not even competing.

He’ll hardly have to lift a finger to win the favor of the vast majority of GOP lawmakers and get the compact ratified. That’s especially true when factoring in the additional pressure that can be brought to bear by House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, each of whom control large leadership funds that can play a significant role in future elections, and both of whom have a stake in getting the Compact they helped negotiate over the finish the line.

But despite all that pressure, the outcome isn’t set in stone. Opposition is mounting to the deal, and for many reasons. First, non-Seminole Tribe sports betting advocates say the deal struck between the Tribe and the State of Florida for sports betting revenue is significantly less than what one of Florida’s (and DeSantis’s) primary competitors just inked. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is bragging about a sports betting deal there that he says will pay the Empire State $500 million per year. That’s $450 million more than the minimum sports betting payment DeSantis can brag about for Florida.

The Seminole Tribe’s Gary Bitner says Florida’s sports betting deal is likely worth more than $50 million, which is only a guaranteed minimum, and that the real rate is 13.75% of “net win,” which is the amount the Tribe collects as their share of all sports bets placed through them. Further, a lot of gaming experts and economists say Andrew Cuomo’s projection is just flat wrong, and isn’t taking into account the much more competitive sports betting market that already exists across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Regardless, the talking point exists, and New York’s deal won’t be ignored here in Florida. Some reports say at least 20 lawmakers are already lined up against the Compact, but that may not be enough to stop it.

What will stop it, however, could be a court ruling. The Compact itself is difficult to describe as anything other than an “expansion” of existing gaming, especially given the sports betting component. And any expansion of gaming outside of Seminole Tribe lands likely runs afoul of the recently passed Amendment 3, approved by voters in 2018, that requires any such expansion to be approved by a constitutional amendment requiring a petition drive to get the measure on the ballot and then a 60 percent majority of all voters.

The Seminole Tribe, the governor, and his legal advisors claim that the way they’ve set things up in the Compact, the computer server where the bets will be received will be located exclusively on Seminole Tribe lands, and that’s not technically an expansion because under some previously existing court rulings, government officials can “deem” that it only matters where the bet is received, never mind that people with smart phones can now place bets from their toilets.

Arguing that a casino in the hands of every adult who wants one isn’t legally an “expansion” because some clever lawyers say it’s not seems a bit disingenuous, and opponents have the polling to prove it.

DeSantis is already trying to kick the football. State lawmakers may do their part to hold the ball firmly in place for him. But it’s likely the courts, and not the legislature, that will get to play the role of Lucy this time around.


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