Around the halfway mark of the Legislative Session, the rumors of a new gaming deal started boiling over.
There were talks of behind-the-scenes meetings between the Governor, the Seminole Tribe, pari-mutuel execs, and more. There were murmurs about sports betting, decoupling, and online gaming. There was a massive spike in lobbying registrations.
But most of us familiar with The Process knew better than to think much of it. An 11th-hour push for gaming legislation is pretty much tradition at this point. Some years it gets further than others — in 2019, a gaming deal was essentially printed out and put in front of Gov. Ron DeSantis only to fall apart in the closing days of that year’s Legislative Session.
But this year it actually happened — and it happened fast.
The Special Session gaveled in midday Monday and a little over 48 hours later, both chambers had signed off on a new 30-year Gaming Compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Pari-mutuels get the decoupling provisions they’ve sought for years. Sports betting is rolling out — theoretically, at least — just a few weeks into football season. And the state is set to receive $2.5 billion in gaming revenues over the next five years.
The Compact still needs federal approval, and it’s certain to face multiple court challenges — this is, after all, the biggest expansion of gaming the Sunshine State has ever seen, and it comes just two years after Florida voters said they deserved a say in any gaming expansion, large or small.
Those battles will produce dozens of winners and losers of their own. But for now, it’s time to take a look at who won big and who got taken to the woodshed in the Special Session on gaming.
Seminole Tribe of Florida — Let’s state the obvious. They just landed exclusive rights to oversee sports betting in a state of 22 million people that gets 100 million-plus visitors a year (in non-pandemic years at least). Sure, they’ll be forking over $500 million a year but that’s little more than tossing a chip at the dealer after a hot streak at the blackjack table. Better yet, they’ll be getting a slice of the pie at every pari-mutuel facility in the state. With this deal, they don’t have a license to print money, they have a license to print licenses to print money.
Ron DeSantis — It doesn’t matter whether you love gambling or hate it. It doesn’t matter if you think the Compact will get shot down as unconstitutional. And it doesn’t matter if lawmakers have to come back and redo the whole thing 10 years into the 30-year deal. What matters is the Governor was able to strike a deal that eluded his predecessor and throngs of pro-gaming lawmakers for years. He made it look easy. This Gaming Compact is a major win for DeSantis, sure, but it might not be in his top-3 for the year — the man got virtually everything he wanted in the Legislative Session, and he’s essentially the 2024 GOP frontrunner assuming Trump doesn’t run … and maybe even if he does. And to top it all off, the state is about to get at least 250,000 stacks of high society ($10K) richer. DeSantis deserves credit, but he didn’t do it alone. Chief of Staff Adrian Lukis, General Counsel James Uthmeier, Deputy General Counsel Ray Treadwell and Legislative Affairs Director Stephanie Kopelousos were key in bringing the Compact in for a smooth landing.
Chris Sprowls — The House Speaker doesn’t just lead, he listens. Rather than jamming the Gaming Compact through the process, he insisted on more time — the Governor and Senate wanted to confirm the deal in Week 9 of the Legislative Session. He also went above and beyond to ensure that his members understood and were comfortable with what they were voting for. When it became clear that the online gaming provision was a nonstarter, he didn’t crack the whip, he brought his concerns directly to the Tribe and got it solved without any public drama. In the Special Session, the House was the more deliberative body.
Wilton Simpson — The Senate was an absolute yawner during the Special Session. They took up the main Gaming Compact bill less than 24 hours after gaveling in, and it passed with a near-unanimous vote. There was never a question of if the deal would clear the Senate — any and all uncertainty (and much of it was valid) came from the other side of the Capitol Complex. From the outside looking in, it may seem like it was easy. It wasn’t. The Senate President just knows the value of getting the work done ahead of time by building consensus among all members. Maybe that made things a bit boring, but that’s not really a bad thing.
Paul Renner — He’s the ultimate team player. When he had concerns about the online gaming provisions, he didn’t spread any FUD or threaten to blow it all up. He stuck close to Sprowls and worked on a solution that addressed the issue and kept all the major players on board. The best House Speakers are the ones who know how to work with their colleagues to solve problems. We have one of those now. It looks like we have another one in the bullpen.
Randy Fine — He came into the Special Session with arguably the most knowledge on gaming law of anyone in either chamber — he is a former executive in the gaming industry, after all. Knowledge is power. And power can be used constructively or destructively. Fine chose the former path. The Brevard County Republican can be brash at times, but in the Special Session, he was anything but. As Chair of the House Select Committee on Gaming, he listened and answered questions from fellow members, whether simple or complex, with a surprisingly light touch. In fact, his calm explanations even helped those of us tuning in on the Florida Channel understand the ins and outs of the Compact. This is the Randy Fine we like to see.
Travis Hutson — Carrying one leadership priority is a heavy lift. But the top brass put eight more 45-pound plates on the bar and he didn’t buckle — he probably could have handled more given. Despite the weight on his shoulders, the St. Augustine Republican remained agile, deftly navigating concerns from fellow Senators (bingo, anyone?) to ensure the Compact, Gaming Commission, decoupling and more made it to the finish line. Even though Sen. Kathleen Passidomo will rule the roost after Simpson, Hutson proved you don’t need to hold the gavel to be a leader.
Chuck Brannan — The Macclenny Republican’s first turn at chairing a subcommittee during a Special Session to decide the future of gaming over the next 30 years. Billions of dollars on the line and all eyes on Tallahassee. Talk about a trial by fire. There were hiccups at his first meeting, but he didn’t buckle under pressure. He remained calm, cool and collected, exhibiting extraordinary steadiness. He not only proved he got the job for good reason, but he also showed leadership that he can be the go-to guy the next time they need a solid leader to take a tough chairmanship.
Lauren Book — Senate Democrats were … relevant? That’s not a joke, we’re just still getting used to it. The caucus was actually effective in getting key amendments added in and they were making valuable contributions to the process. A lot of this comes down to Book. She’s only been Senate Democratic Leader for a matter of weeks, but there is already a new air of competence and confidence within their ranks. Can you imagine if Larry Charmer was still in charge? Thankfully, you don’t have to.
Bobby Payne — The House Ways & Means Chair has a steady and commanding presence. That led to his selection as a prime sponsor for the main Compact implementing bill — and he didn’t take the role lightly. He’s clearly someone on the House’s leadership team who had the Speaker’s trust and confidence going into the Special Session. Given the results he helped secure, his stock is only rising.
Linda Chaney — Originally, the Gaming Compact implementing bills cut out city governments from having a say in whether a former pari-mutuel could relocate inside their boundaries. The St. Pete Beach Republican didn’t think that was right, but she didn’t throw a fit — she worked the process. A freshman lawmaker who knows how to work the process is uncommon. A freshman who is successful in doing so is rare. And one gets it done during a three-day Special Session is unicorn-level rare. Not only did Chaney pull it off, but did it in all the right ways.
Elizabeth Fetterhoff — A lot of people were busy this week, but Fetterhoff was busier. The DeLand Republican was tapped to serve as vice-chair of the House Select Gaming Committee and she showed up ready to work on passing the biggest gaming deal in state history. And she did so a day after one of the most important days in her life: Her wedding day. She didn’t complain and she didn’t ask for a pat on the back — she just did the job she was elected to do.
Sam Garrison — If this freshman lawmaker isn’t already a frontrunner in the 2024-26 House Speaker race (cough … he is … cough) then the Special Session certainly made the case for why he should be. The Fleming Island Republican stepped onto the main stage and acquitted himself like a future leader. He effectively carried the Gaming Compact implementing bill. It wasn’t an honorary sponsorship — he proved he knew his stuff when members asked tough questions about hubs, spokes, servers and more.
Jackie Toledo — The Compact had most lawmakers seeing dollar signs and little else. Not so for this Tampa Republican. Toledo has been a leader in the fight to end human trafficking, and she knows that it doesn’t matter if it’s the Super Bowl or the casino — more tourist traffic means the potential for more trafficking. She wasn’t afraid to broach the subject during the Special Session, asking tough questions about whether Seminole Gaming employees had the training to spot victims and seeking concrete data related to trafficking on tribal lands.
Marie Woodson — The freshman Democrat represents Hollywood. Her constituents had more on the line than almost any other bloc of Floridians, and her approach showed she recognized the gravity of the situation. She showed up with smart questions — and she asked them with the intent of getting answers, not scoring points or getting zingers in her hometown paper. Her performance this week proved that Democrats can make valuable contributions to the conversation without resorting to grandstanding.
Clay Yarbrough — He’s running for Senate and the entire field can be described with the same three words: “Jacksonville Republican Rep.” Before the Special Session, there wasn’t all that much daylight between him, Cord Byrd and Jason Fischer — at least not much that would matter to voters in a Republican primary. His vocal opposition and vote against the Gaming Compact changed that. Now, he’s the lone candidate on the side of a big wedge issue that will play well with a major contingent of the GOP base. Will it be enough? Maybe, maybe not. But come Aug. 23, 2022, there won’t be many Republican voters in Senate District 4 who don’t know about his nay vote.
Jim Allen and Jim Shore — Allen, the CEO of Seminole Gaming, and Shore, the Seminole Tribe’s General Counsel, had a tough job. Both showed up to Tallahassee prepared for a gauntlet of committee hearings armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of gaming laws and binders of data on how Florida could benefit from the new Compact. Both delivered masterfully for the Tribe, effectively making their case to lawmakers on the merits. They are absolute professionals. With them at the helm, is it any wonder why the Seminole Tribe’s operations have seen so much success over the past decade? Without the work of Allen, Shore and of course Seminole Tribal Chairman Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., a new compact with the state would never have seen the light of day.
Rick Asnani — Many a good idea falls victim to mixed or mealymouthed messaging. With as many people as it took to make the Gaming Compact happen, there was no shortage of opportunities for someone to go off message and sink the deal. Asani, the founder and president of Cornerstone Solutions, wasn’t about to let that happen. Asnani along with the Tribe’s spokesman, Gary Bitner, have a long and successful history with the Tribe dating back to the first compact in 2009. More than a decade later, they are still acing their job of ensuring all teams in the Tribe’s orbit are on the same page and sticking to the script. How much you want to bet Cornerstone Solutions is around for the next Compact?
Lobbyists — The state may end up getting billions poured into its coffers, but it’s the Seminole Tribe that hit the real jackpot. They’ll be raking money in hand over fist through their own properties and at pari-mutuels across the state. Yes — Seminole Gaming execs and tribal leaders deserve heaps of credit. But so do the lobbyists that helped nail it down. What’s even more impressive is that while every gaming company from Las Vegas to New Jersey was signing new lobbyists in droves, the Tribe didn’t hire anyone new. Instead, they relied on their trusted, longtime advocates, including Will McKinley, Angela Dempsey and Fred Dickinson of Poole McKinley; Gus Corbella and Hayden Dempsey of Greenberg Traurig; Charlie Dudley of Floridian Partners; Marc Dunbar, Chris Moya and Jennifer Ungru of Dean Mead; and Screven Watson of Screven Watson & Associates.
Ron Book — When the headline of your hometown paper reads “Heavy-hitter, Ron Book helps Davie snag a bigger share of gambling cash” … well, you’re a winner. Book made a powerful case that Davie deserved a revenue bump. He came armed with stats and data showing that the tow was dealing with more than its fair share of police and emergency calls near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. In the end, the town will see its share more than double — from 10% to 22.5% — and they have Book to thank for it.
Matt Bryan — Jai alai frontons, former greyhound tracks and the state’s one and only standardbred horse racing track are all jumping for joy after securing the right to keep their poker rooms and slot machines without running loss-leader games and races. Thoroughbred tracks, such as Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs, wanted in on the action too, but they ran into a brick wall. The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association fought hard against the change, arguing that decoupling would drive a dagger into the heart of one of the state’s oldest and most prestigious industries. Lawmakers listened. Stats on the economic impact and potential job losses helped, but the victory is owed in no small part to an all-star lobbying effort from Matt Bryan and the team at Smith Bryan & Myers.
The Goodman brothers — Adam Goodman’s triumphant tenure with the Seminoles dates back to the original Compact, but this go-around, he and brother Max Goodman proved that two heads are better than one. The duo joined forces to produce a multimillion-dollar ad campaign for the Tribe that went well beyond the Compact itself, profiling the Tribe’s selfless culture and “unconquered” resilience on television screens statewide. It also hammered home the exact right message to get Floridians on board — that the Compact will bring jobs and economic investment to their communities. Not only did they help seal the deal, but they also made the Tribe look good while doing it.
Bingo — Several pieces of gaming legislation raised eyebrows but it was a proposal to overhaul bingo, oddly enough, that spurred some of the most contentious debates of the Special Session. Lawmakers considered allowing pari-mutuels to get in on the action and planned to modernize the game most often associated with prime timers by bringing electronic card minders and other new-fangled tech into the mix. But the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association, which represents the charities and community groups that make their bones on bingo nights, weren’t having it. They hired Eli Nortellus, Dave Roberts and Scott Dick on Monday morning and by sundown the bingo bill was dead. It may be the quickest paycheck a lobbyist has ever earned, but you can’t argue with the results. It helps that Sen. George Gainer was ready and willing to serve as a firewall in the Senate. He essentially took a “not one damn comma” approach to bingo rules, and they remained intact and unaltered because of it.
Dan Daley — He fought tooth and nail to preserve race requirements at Florida’s last harness racing track. He lost. But sometimes you can win for losing. The Coral Springs Democrat is the son of a standardbred horse breeder and he made a righteous argument — and even moved the needle — despite the deck being stacked against him. Unfortunately, for him at least, the standardbred racing business is likely on the outs in Florida, but he gained a lot of respect and got a lot of airtime by standing up for what he believes in.
John Sowinski — The president of No Casinos proved yet again to be a valiant fighter in the crusade against gaming expansion. Whether you agree with him or not, Sowinski is as smart as they come, with the debate skills and PR savvy to match. He was on most all of the Sunday political shows in the state last Sunday, prompting a new classification called the “Full Sowinski.” While his side did not succeed in killing the Compact or getting it on the ballot for voter approval, No Casinos did secure concessions from the Tribe to tamp down on internet gaming. His fuller and final report card cannot be graded until IGRA and the courts do their number on the Compact. “It ain’t over till it’s over” works both ways on gaming legislation.
Gary Farmer — If you Google failure, you won’t find a picture of Farmer. But you will find hundreds of synonyms for the word, all of which describe the former Senate Democratic Leader. Is there anyone who is more universally reviled by members of the Senate? After being unanimously kicked to the curb by his caucus during the regular Legislative Session, he chose Special Session to pick (and lose) yet another fight with his replacement, Book. After all that has happened between them — especially his blatant misogyny — there was no way it was going to make Book look bad. All it did was make Farmer look saltier than a tin of anchovies. The idea that Farmer ever thought he could be elected statewide is as ridiculous as believing that orange is Donald Trump‘s natural skin tone.
Dormant permitholders — The Legislature just turned pari-mutuel licenses into golden tickets, but only for some. Thanks to the “use it or lose it” policy, many license holders saw their decadeslong business investments heisted by the Republican Legislature. Remember that spiel about picking winners and losers? The one literally a few lines up from here? Yeah — here’s another example.
Joe Geller — The Aventura Democrat loves — and we mean LOVES — himself some gaming. Heading into the Special Session, he was the Legislature’s equivalent of the girl who wants to chair the prom committee then realizes no one asked him to the dance. Despite all the talking he did in committee and on the floor, he just couldn’t come up with a way to make himself relevant. When he tried to convince his caucus to boycott the dance … err, vote down the Compact … he was met with a chorus of “Sure, Jan.”
Omari Hardy — The West Palm Beach Democrat makes a good point here and there, but he manages to erase any goodwill through outright lies — and on the most baffling things. Heading into the Special Session, he claimed that Democrats weren’t given a seat at the table and proceeded to vote against the Compact to “teach” the Governor and Republican leadership that they can’t “lock” Democrats out of the process. Wut? There were plenty of valid reasons to vote against the deal, but that wasn’t one of them — his own caucus leader, Rep. Evan Jenne, even commented that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staff were going out of their way to reach out to Democrats. If Hardy sticks to his plans and leaves the House to run for Congress, few tears will be shed. He made sure of that.
Bill Galvano — To say he wanted his fingerprints on a new Gaming Compact is the understatement of the century. Galvano is not just a former Senate President, he’s a former President of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States — he even wrote the last Compact. Yet here we are, a little over six months removed from his presidency and the state and Seminole Tribe have agreed to the biggest gaming deal in Florida history. At least he can take solace in getting his signature toll road plan through the Legislature … oh, wait. Well, there’s probably something he can take solace in. A scarf, maybe? We’ll let you know when we think of it.
Hollywood — As home to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Hollywood stood to gain a lot from a new Gaming Compact. Instead, they got taken to the woodshed. Since the last compact, the city has been receiving 55% of the local disbursements from the Seminole Tribe to offset costs for police and emergency response to the venue. The local revenue share is about to tick up — it’s set at a percentage of payments sent to the state — which is great news for Broward County and Dania Beach. It’s even better news for Davie, which will see its share jump from 10% to 22.5%. Hollywood, however, will likely tread water since the Davie increase came directly from their allotment. Talk about a bad beat.
Competition — Republicans say they care about free markets and competition, and that they don’t want to pick winners and losers. Yet, they just gave the Seminoles an exclusive on sports gaming while cutting out the biggest players in the industry. At least as far as money is concerned, Republicans just picked the biggest winner in Florida’s modern history. They also picked about 22 million losers, since it’s Floridians who will end up shortchanged by the lack of competition.