TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reached an agreement with the state’s Seminole Tribe on Friday that would greatly expand gambling in the state, including the introduction of legalized sports wagering.
The tribe will also be allowed to introduce craps and roulette at its seven casinos, including the popular Hard Rock near Fort Lauderdale. The state would get at least $2.5 billion from the tribe over the first five years and at least $6 billion by 2030. DeSantis, in a statement, said he expects the pact to create 2,200 new jobs.
“This historic compact expands economic opportunity, tourism, and recreation, and bolsters the fiscal success of our state in one fell swoop for the benefit of all Floridians and Seminoles alike,” DeSantis said. “Our agreement establishes the framework to generate billions in new revenue and untold waves of positive economic impact.”
The 30-year compact between the state and tribe must still be considered by the Legislature at a special session that will begin May 17. It also must be approved by the Seminole tribal council and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees tribal gambling operations.
The Seminoles, invoking their sovereignty as a tribal nation, began their gambling operations with a high-stakes bingo parlor in 1979 and have been expanding ever since. The tribe, once poor, now pays each of its 4,100 members, including children, more than $100,000 annually in dividends and owns the Hard Rock brand worldwide.
“The Seminole Tribe of Florida is committed to a mutually beneficial gaming compact with the State of Florida,” said Marcellus Osceola Jr., the tribe’s chairman.
Democratic state Rep. Joseph Geller has long advocated for a new agreement, but he cautioned Friday that his party members would examine how the new revenue will be used. He said some should go to programs that address gambling addiction. Republicans control the Legislature, but religious conservatives could balk at the agreement. Democratic support could offset that possibility.
“We’ll have to see what it says,” Geller said. “The devil’s in the details.”
The original compact with the Seminoles expired in 2015. That original compact gave them exclusive rights to certain games, such as slot machines and card games like blackjack. In exchange, the tribe paid the state tens of millions of dollars — which all but dried up when it expired.
Then-Gov. Rick Scott reached a new deal with the tribe, but it died because many lawmakers believed its expansion of gambling went too far.
Florida has long had gambling in the form of horse racing, jai-alai and, until last Jan. 1, dog racing, which was banned by voters in a 2018 ballot initiative. Poker has been added at those facilities over the last 20 years.
But it has also been leery of casino gambling and is a state with areas that are highly conservative and religious. Their legislators have traditionally opposed any expansion of gambling.
Attempts over the decades to build Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida off Seminole lands have been squashed. A 2018 amendment to the Florida Constitution enacted by voters says casino-style gambling can’t be expanded off tribal lands unless approved in a statewide ballot measure that garners at least 60% support.
“Florida is a diverse state and our Senators and constituents have many different opinions, beliefs and convictions regarding gaming,” Senate President Wilton Simpson wrote in a memo to his members Friday. “The fact remains, Florida has a significant gaming footprint, and I think if we are going to regulate these activities, it should be within a structure that is fair and equitable to all parties.”
Simpson also said the state needs to update its laws “to reflect current realities of this heavily-regulated industry and to ensure those laws are properly enforced.” Currently, about half the states and the District of Columbia allow sports wagering in some form.
Republican Rep. Chip LaMarca, who has been pushing for gaming legislation in the House, said he is “very happy to see that legalized, safe, and regulated sports wagering will be included in the new compact. It is about time that Florida joins the other states and gives our residents and tourists this additional entertainment choice.”
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. AP writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.