Joe Henderson: Gov. DeSantis wagers big on gambling compact

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We're watching a three-dimensional game of political chess play out in Tallahassee.

While lawmakers meet in a Special Session to consider the proposed Seminole Gaming Compact, we remember the 2018 constitutional amendment requiring voter approval to expand gambling in the state.

Can’t get around the Constitution, can you? And since 71.5% of the voters approved that initiative, and the group No Casinos has legal briefs in hand, why even try?

Because this is Florida, that’s why.

We’re watching a three-dimensional game of political chess play out in Tallahassee. Proponents of the Compact must develop ways that A): ensure the best deal for the state and B): can survive a court challenge.

Gov. Ron DeSantis invested a huge amount of personal political capital in winning this battle. He usually gets what he wants.

DeSantis knows the law as well as anyone, and I’d wager — euphemistically, of course — that he already believes there is a way around the amendment.

History is on his side, too.

Florida lawmakers are awfully good at ignoring the will of the people if it stands in the way of something they want.

Voting rights for ex-felons? Nah. We know what the people thought they were approving, but all those folks might vote for the other party. Can’t have that.

The amendment regulating class sizes in public schools? Nope.

Medical marijuana? Delay, deny, nitpick.

Buying land for conservation? Nearly 75% of voters approved that amendment in 2014. Lawmakers must have thought they were kidding, though, and some used their go-to argument: people didn’t know what they were voting for. Besides, we might need to pave over those mangroves someday.

Since then, political chicanery left funding for Florida Forever at a fraction of where it should be now, but our state motto on such things is “Something Is Better Than Nothing.”

The Compact is different, though.

This can mean billions of dollars to the state over the life of the deal. And despite well-meaning objections from former Gov. Jeb Bush and others, it’s basically a voluntary tax. No one has to bet their money on games of chance if they don’t want to.

I live near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, and the parking lot is jammed every time I drive by — morning, afternoon, night, weekdays, or weekends.

For the record, I have never wagered so much as a dollar in that facility.

Sports betting is part of this deal, too. This just in: If sports wagering remains illegal in Florida, people will find a way to do it anyway. They already do.

Those are some of the arguments for casinos and expanded gambling.

Bush articulates the other side and has for a long time. Several years ago, he took me to task for penning a favorable column in the Tampa Tribune about gambling expansion.

“South Florida is on a roll! Bush said Monday in a statement. “Our great quality of life and an incredible surge of job creators to our region have put us on a path for rising income and prosperity for many more of our neighbors.

“At the time when our economy is poised for an unprecedented takeoff after taking a hit from the pandemic, now is not the time to expand casino gambling which will benefit a handful at the expense of many.”

However, politics almost always carries the day. Voters spoke loudly in 2018, but if lawmakers see a way around that, they will most likely take it.

Then it will be up to the courts, and DeSantis wouldn’t have gone this far if he didn’t believe he could prevail.

Place your bets.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.



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