• Florida legislators want sports betting on the floor for the 2019 session.
  • The Seminole Trible of Florida will block sports betting talks until other exclusivity disputes are resolved.
  • Some lawmakers argue that sports betting legalization is only possible by voter referendum.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There is plenty of talk of sports betting in Florida’s 2019 legislative session, but some definite challenges remain in the legalization of the popular pastime.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to getting a sports wagering bill passed this year is an exclusivity dispute between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the state government.

That said, there are other lawmakers who insist that the state legislature doesn’t even have the authority to legalize sports betting at all. Further, some claim that Florida’s Congress cannot even broach the issue, thanks to the recently-passed Amendment 3.

Which of these two roadblocks will prove the most pressing is up to individual interpretation. It may also be irrelevant, as both will have to be resolved before brick-and-mortar and domestic online sportsbooks can open in the Sunshine State.

Voter Exclusivity

As the less tempestuous and more technical issue, the question of the necessity of voter approval has to be answered. In November 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 3, which guarantees that the state’s voters “shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling.”

The Amendment defines “casino gambling” as anything “typically found…within the definition of Class III gaming in the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

There are those, like Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton), who argue that Class III gaming doesn’t cover sports betting, thus enabling the state to address the topic without voter input. Other parties, however, disagree. According to lobbyist John Sowinski (via the Sarasota Herald-Tribune), Florida lawmakers can’t even force the issue.

“The legislature not only doesn’t have the authority to approve sports betting, it does not even have the authority to propose sports betting to voters.”

This is thanks to Amendment 3’s language that any prospective gambling expansion “requires a vote by citizens’ initiative…” Thus, before the state can even craft a proposal, Florida voters must present a petition to elected officials seeking such an outcome.

Whether or not sports betting constitutes Class III gaming is up for debate, of course. The general consensus nationwide – at least so far – has been that the two are distinct from one another, though in New Mexico, there is precedent for offering sports wagering under the terms of the state’s tribal compacts.

Tribal Exclusivity

Speaking of tribal compacts, that is likely the larger hurdle when it comes to sports wagering legalization in Florida. The Seminole Tribe, which is the largest gaming operator in the state, has a series of concerns that must be addressed before any progress is made on sports wagering access.

The Seminole give the Florida government roughly $350 million in yearly payments as part of their gambling exclusivity deal with the state. Such exclusivity applies to the operation of all banked casino games.

According to the Seminole, Florida’s many pari-mutuel tracks and jai-alai frontons offer “designated player” games that violate the terms of this agreement. Until the state forces these sites to stop infringing the Seminole Tribe’s rights, sports betting will have to wait. Galvano explains:

“The cornerstone of anything gaming right now is to achieve stability with the Seminole Tribe. We are in a position where the tribe does not believe it has a legal obligation to continue to pay but it pays out of good faith…”

That good faith is growing more limited by the day, and the Seminole are threatening to stop all payments to the state if a fair resolution – one that honors the tribe’s exclusivity compact – is not achieved.

The Seminole are well known as the only tribe in America to never sign a peace treaty. They probably aren’t going to start now.

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