The many sides of the Seminole Compact

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At stake are the fortunes and very futures of whole industries in Florida.

Anyone who thinks the new 30-year, multibillion-dollar Seminole Compact is a deal involving the state of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is missing about 15 sides of the underway arguments that may be about to explode into shouting.

Fortunes and futures of whole Florida industries are on the line.

Come May 17, the Florida Legislature’s Special Session will take on the interests of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, several national and international casino gambling corporations, the Seminoles’ two big casino operations, dozens of smaller casinos or game rooms, internet gambling, thoroughbred racing, harness racing, horse breeding, off-track horse or greyhound dog race betting, fantasy sports games outfits, South Florida development interests, opponents of gambling expansion in Florida, the Florida Constitution, and what’s left of the state’s once-iconic greyhound racing and jai alai enterprises.

The 75-page compact‘s enabling legislation is in a molten state of a half-dozen bills, scores of proposed amendments, and armies of lobbyists. When it hardens into new law in Florida, that surely means the end to some of those interests in Florida, slow starvation and anemia for others, and the potential for billions of dollars in business for others.

For Florida taxpayers, the result may be a half-billion dollars or more in gambling revenue sharing each year for 30 years. For the Tribe, it means the stable assurances of a 30-year contract and a slew of new opportunities.

And peace.

In perhaps a most important way, the pact represents peace between the Tribe and the state after decades of tension and three years of a standoff that had every prospect to degenerate to worse.

And it suggests a forecast that Florida could take its place behind Nevada as a mecca for gambling, rather than just home to a couple of big, international-draw, Seminole-run Hard Rock Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, and the few mostly local-attraction gambling parlors.

And it almost assuredly means a constitutional battle between many of those interests and the intentions of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, versus the gambling-opposition organization No Casinos and the 5.7 million Florida voters who said in 2018 that they do not want any expansions of gambling in Florida without explicit approval by voters. That year they approved Amendment 3, which now is included in Article X, Section 30 of the Florida Constitution.

This battle will be waged quickly, over just five days in May.

The stakes:

— There reportedly are at least a half-dozen bills led by those that actually have been introduced, HB 7053/SB 7076 & HB 7055/SB 7080) and at least 42 amendments. Every player in this multi-industry battle royal is activating lobbyists to add to that total.

— The Seminole Tribe of Florida would add the table games of craps and roulette to their casinos. Though, the real long-term potential lies in the Tribe’s proposed new ability to run all sports betting in Florida, including through the internet, which could be played anywhere in Florida.

The Tribe also could contract with nontribal casinos to run Seminole sports betting lounges there.

Perhaps equally important, the Tribe would get a 30-year deal, providing the assurances that Wall Street would want to provide the financing necessary for long-term, major growth.

With commercial-grade bonds becoming available and the state’s blessing through the new Compact, the Tribe could be able to add three new casinos to the grounds of its Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood. The new casinos would not have to be branded as Hard Rock. The Tribe could cut deals (requiring new ownership stakes) with other big, Las Vegas-style casino companies to put their names there. It effectively could create a strip of seemingly competitive branded, Las Vegas-style casinos in Hollywood.

The Tribe also could build new casinos in some of its other tribal lands, notably in Coconut Creek and Immokalee, though not in Brighton or Big Cypress.

— The state of Florida would receive “revenue sharing” from the Tribe of at least $2.5 billion over the first five years and at least $500 million a year over the course of the 30-year agreement. That’s up from a minimum of $400 million a year the Tribe was pledged to provide in the current pact, which has only seven years left in it anyway. Presumably, the payments would be more once the state’s share is calculated at the end of every year.

— The next big group of winners would be the “designated player games” establishments — Florida legalize for the more than two dozen nontribal slot-machine and card-game rooms that have had the tenuous authority to operate, as part of pari-mutuel betting operations tied to horse racing, greyhound racing, or jai alai. Those establishments would be allowed to decouple their game rooms from pari-mutuel betting, meaning they won’t have to be tied to the tracks and frontons anymore. Some also will have the opportunities to expand and even move their gaming operations.

Likewise, the big Las Vegas and international gambling corporations that back many of these card rooms, such as Ceasars Entertainment, Wynn, Churchill Downs, Isle of Capri Casinos, would be able to lay more chips into the operations.

This will be bigger for some than for others. Palm Beach Kennel Club might get unlimited designated player game tables.

Ceasars and Churchill Downs, and Hialeah Park Race Track already have development plans in Pompano Beach, Miami-Dade County, and Hialeah, respectively. They would all include new casino anchors, along with mixed-use, including shopping, light industrial, and residential. Those plans would largely be contingent on the Seminole Compact and enabling legislation.

Thanks to the provision that allows the game rooms to be moved — provided they are at least 15 miles outside a Tribe property — the Trump National Doral resort in Miami and the Fontainebleau Miami Beach are already being eyed for casinos, though Fontainebleau would have to wait.

The wagering operations in Seminole County, tied to pari-mutuel gaming at the former Sanford Orlando Kennel Club in Longwood and Orlando Jai-Alai & Race Book in Fern Park, would not be able to do anything new. They would be limited to their current simulcast horse racing off-track betting room.

As the Compact and bills currently are written, Tampa Bay Downs and the former Tampa Greyhound track’s game room would not be able to move anything, seriously restricting their futures.

— The compact and bills would mean dire consequences for the pari-mutuel operations: thoroughbred racing, harness racing of Standardbred horses, and jai alai. They’re all becoming superfluous to the real action, the slot machines and card tables that will be breaking away and heading toward bigger action.

Many race tracks would be likely to close.

The effect would depressingly ripple through Florida’s horse breeding industry, which currently is top-three nationally for breeding and top-four for racing.

Decoupling “would be devastating to the Florida thoroughbred industry,” said Mike Rogers, President of The Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream Park Racing Gulfstream Park and Casino in Hallandale Beach.

The Standardbred horse business, in particular, is in serious jeopardy. There is one last track in Florida, the Isle Casino Racing in Pompano Park. The owners already have applied for rezoning to bulldoze the track and replace it with a mixed-use development anchored by a game-room casino, should they get decoupling. Democratic Rep. Dan Daley of Coral Springs, whose father raised Standardbred horses, is warning that if that track closes, the entire Standardbred breeding and ownership business in Florida could collapse.

— The seven “summer jai alais” in Miami-Dade and Broward counties would not be able to open game rooms, pushing them deeper into the limbo of cultural anachronisms.

— Fantasy sports games — fantasy football, fantasy baseball, etc. — have exploded into popularity over the past 20 years. But the big national players such as DraftKings and FanDuel could be shut out of Florida because the Seminole Tribe would get exclusive rights.

The laws on fantasy sports betting have been fuzzier, so those companies have been operating at some level in Florida for years, even though they have no overt authority. The compact enabling legislation could make it clear: you’re not allowed.

— Opposition to any gambling expansion in Florida, long a powerful force backed by big money from Orlando’s “family-friendly” tourism industry, notably Disney, is mobilizing. They have a firm stake in the ground with Amendment 3 — adopted in 2018 with 71% approval from statewide voters — requiring any new casino gambling in Florida to be approved by voters.

The leaders of the opposition, No Casinos, commissioned a poll showing that the percentage of opposition from Florida voters still stands. They’ve vowed to challenge the deal in court, based on Amendment 3. They’re already running anti-Compact ads. And they’ll be lobbying as hard as the others.

John Sowinski, President of No Casinos, said in a Zoom news conference Thursday that he is convinced the Seminole Compact has the power to make Florida the nation’s second-biggest destination for tourist gambling, behind only Nevada.

Proponents do not aggressively disagree with that assessment.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]


2 comments

  • steve grabarczyk

    May 10, 2021 at 10:53 am

    Funny this rag didn’t give a crap about out of state interests that obliterated 100 years of history and 10,000 jobs by buying the CRC to fix the greyhound ballot issue.

  • Mental Health Blog

    May 14, 2021 at 8:04 am

    Today, they live in Oklahoma and Florida and comprise three federally recognized tribes: the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, as well as independent groups. Historically the Seminole spoke Mikasuki and Creek, both Muskogean languages.

Comments are closed.


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