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By John Haughey | The Center Square

With states scrambling for revenue to boost pandemic-stressed budgets, it’s a good bet a raft of sports gambling bills will be approved by lawmakers across the nation in 2021 – including in Florida.

With a projected $3 billion shortfall in revenue over the next two years and after two sessions of not passing gambling legislation, lawmakers will likely be amenable to measures that create new revenue without raising taxes when Florida’s 60-day legislative session begins March 2.

Among them: Proposals to establish a legal sports wagering program and an “e-fairness” bill that could together boost state coffers by more than $1 billion annually.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed three bills Monday that would allow the state’s lottery department to issue licenses and oversee legal sports wagering in Florida with revenue dedicated to education beginning Oct. 1, 2021.

Brandes’ Senate Bill 392 authorizes the state’s Department of the Lottery to operate a sports wagering program and lays out the parameters of how it would operate.

SB 394 imposes a 15-percent tax on “sums received from a sports pool” and SB 396 establishes $100,000 application and renewal fees for state-issued sports wagering licenses.

Sports betting is now legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C., following the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association.

An additional four states – Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington – passed 2020 bills legalizing sports betting that goes into effect in 2021. Missouri is among states where lawmakers have submitted 2021 bills seeking to legalize sports wagers.

Brandes’ 2021 proposals are similar to the trio of bills he introduced in the waning days of the 2020 legislative session as lawmakers prepared to leave Tallahassee in March without a new gaming pact with the Seminoles.

The bills are essentially a prod to spur urgency in talks between Florida and the Tribe and to stop leaving money on the table – some estimates top $700 million annually – when the state’s current year and next year budgets face unanticipated pandemic-induced shortfalls.

The Seminole gaming compact remains in negotiation with the Tribe objecting to the state’s taking control of sports wagering, especially since such an expansion could be outlawed under the November 2018 passage of Amendment 3, which requires any “expansion of gambling” be approved by at least 60 percent of voters in a ballot measure.

Amendment 3, largely bankrolled by Disney and the Seminoles, passed with a 71 percent majority and “ensures Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling.”

The Seminoles stopped making monthly payments when their pact with the state expired in May 2019 after lawmakers and the Tribe failed to reach an accord over banked card games, control of online gaming, and discord over newly legal sports gambling.

The Tribe cited the state’s failure to install “a mechanism to shut down the illegal banked card games,” as ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle in 2016, as the reason for discontinuing revenue-sharing payments – $350 million annually.

House and Senate leaders, led by former Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Sarasota, and now-Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, had negotiated several tentative deals including a proposal in which the Seminoles’ casinos and pari-mutuel sites serve as a sports wagering “hub.”

None of the proposals got before lawmakers, including a 2019 deal in which the state would shut down designated player games at pari-mutuel sites not operated by the Seminoles for an annual $500 million payment.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, however, rejected the agreement and negotiations have since stalled despite a flurry of late attempts during the final days of the 2020 session when Brandes – during the last week of the session – submitted his “adopt or get off the pot” measures to place sports wagering under the state’s purview.

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