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Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, listens to Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, during the Senate's Committee on Rules Friday, April 28, 2017 at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. (Photo by Phil Sears)

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Sports betting could be tied to Seminole Tribe

‘There are many opportunities on sports betting.’

Gambling talks underway between a key senator and the Seminole Tribe include a proposal that could bring sports betting to Florida by running it through the tribe, possibly avoiding the need for a statewide vote on the popular type of betting.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is the Legislature’s chief negotiator in gambling discussions with the tribe, confirmed Wednesday that the talks open the possibility of sports betting at dog tracks, horse tracks and jai alai frontons. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed sports betting in Florida and other states with a ruling last year in a New Jersey case.

Simpson confirmed the Seminoles would serve as a “hub” for sports betting, meaning they would get a cut of the bets being made outside of their facilities, while being allowed to run sports books at their own casinos, a concept first reported Monday by The News Service of Florida.

The introduction of sports betting at the state’s pari-mutuels could be problematic, however, due to a constitutional amendment that passed in November requiring statewide votes on citizens’ initiatives that would expand casino-type gambling. That ballot measure was known as Amendment 3.

“There are many opportunities on sports betting. There is Amendment 3, also, that we have to contend with as part of that. So hopefully, if we get an agreement together, it will respect both of those things,” Simpson told reporters Wednesday evening. “We do want to make sure our pari-mutuel friends have the opportunity to do sports book, and we want to make sure that it’s done in a way that is compliant with Amendment 3.”

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When asked if having the tribe serve as a hub could avoid the need for a statewide vote on sports betting, Simpson said, “Perhaps. Yes. That’s probably right. Yes.”

The constitutional amendment requires voter approval of “any type of games typically found in casinos.”

Backers of the constitutional amendment maintain the language covers sports betting outside of tribal casinos. Paul Hawkes, a lawyer hired by a political committee that spearheaded the amendment, wrote in a legal analysis provided Tuesday to House Speaker José Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano that, at the time the amendment passed, sports betting was prohibited in most states.

“The proper inquiry is, where would a Florida voter expect to find lawful sports betting in November of 2018? Consequently, it is not a test of counting how many casinos offered sports betting, but it is really a test of venue,” he wrote. “It may not have been found often, but when legal sports betting was found, it was ‘typically’ found at casinos at the time Florida voters adopted Amendment 3.”

But not everyone agrees. Only a handful of casinos offered sports betting when 71 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment in November, gambling lawyer Daniel Wallach, who is a national expert on sports betting, told the News Service in an interview this week.

Wallach said Hawkes is trying to “rewrite Amendment 3 to include new words that he wished were included in the amendment but were not.”

“The actual definition of ‘casino gambling’ asks point-blank whether sports betting is the type of game ‘typically found in casinos,’ and does not place the focus, as Hawkes urges, on where Florida voters ‘would expect to find lawful sports betting in 2018,’” Wallach said. “The test suggested by Hawkes is not supported by any of the actual words used in Amendment 3 and is a flagrant attempt to ‘change the definition after the fact,’ a maneuver that flouts basic rules of statutory interpretation in a manner that Florida courts would never countenance.”

Because tribal gaming is regulated by federal law, the constitutional amendment excludes gambling expansions by tribes. But it includes a provision saying the amendment does nothing to “limit the ability” of the state or tribes to negotiate compacts pursuant to federal law “for the conduct of casino gambling on tribal lands.”

With time running out on the Legislative Session slated to end May 3, Simpson had hoped to have a gambling bill for consideration by the end of the week.

But that now seems unlikely. The Republican leader, who is slated to take over as Senate president following the 2020 elections, said he has not briefed Oliva or Gov. Ron DeSantis on the details of a proposal.

“We’re still making very good progress, and I hope that we’ll have something shortly to talk about,” he said. “The reality is that we are getting closer and closer on some very big issues, and we are making very good progress.”

Simpson said he is nearing the point where he’s ready to bring a final deal to DeSantis and Oliva, who’d have to give their blessing before legislation is introduced.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to get it across the line,” he said.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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