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Florida's New Gambling Deal With The Seminole Tribe Is Expected To Bring In $500 Million Annually. Here's How Lawmakers Want To Spend That Money

Chris Sprowls wears a grey suit and red tie. He is clapping his hands.
Steve Cannon
Associated Press
Florida House speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, applauds the passage of Seminole gambling compact bill during a special session, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla. The Seminole Tribe will be able to operate sports betting under an agreement with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. The House voted 97-17 on Wednesday to approve the gambling compact. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

As lawmakers considered a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe that will result in about $500 million of new revenue each year, many wondered how that money would be used. Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), and a few of her Democratic colleagues, filed amendments during the special session to try to firm that up before lawmakers signed onto the deal.

“That would have diverted the funding from the compact, assuming it were to pass and be approved, that would go toward mental health and substance abuse prevention,” Eskamani said, explaining what her amendment would have done.

Eskamani's amendment was ruled beyond the scope of the call. Meaning it dealt with an issue (in this case the budget) that did not directly relate to the reason lawmakers had been called back to Tallahassee for a special session.

Eskamani said even though her amendment couldn’t be heard during special session, she hopes diverting some of those funds for mental health is an issue lawmakers keep in mind as they prepare for the next legislative session.

“We will have additional dollars to decide what to do. And thinking about the potential impact of gambling on mental health, on substance abuse, I think spending these dollars in that way would be a very important cause for us to pursue knowing how underfunded mental health is in this state and how the governor and first lady have also supported those initiatives,” Eskamani said.

Meanwhile, Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Springhill) said he thinks that money will likely need to go toward paying state worker wages.

“What I would caution everyone on, and I have that will listen, is that the constitutional amendment that passed on minimum wage is going to require another $6-700 million recurring of revenue—additional," Simpson said. "We did $42 million this year to bring everybody up to $13 an hour. But to go to $15 an hour just on state employees it's another $240 million and then to do it to all the state agencies that work indirectly for the state that’s another $5-700 million. We will have an exact number by Oct. 1. So when you say $500 million, that’s a lot of revenue, the truth is we have this balance on our balance sheet that has to be addressed."

Simpson is talking about an amendment to Florida’s constitution that raises the state’s minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour by 2026.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) said he thinks it's a question best left for next session.

But before the deal can become official, the federal government needs to sign off. And legal challenges are expected.

The group No Casinos said a part of the deal that lets the Seminoles operate sports betting in the state violates a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018 that requires a statewide referendum for any gambling expansion to get approved. That rule does not include gambling that takes place at tribe casinos. Opponents say while under the new proposal sports betting would be run by the tribe, and the servers used would be on tribal land, not everyone participating would be. They argue that means a statewide vote is required.

Sprowls said even if the sports betting portion of the agreement is struck down in a challenge, he doesn't expect a significant change in revenue heading to the state.

“If it is litigated, let’s assume that the federal court says that’s not a valid way to do it. So that part is now severed from the compact Floridians get the benefit of the bargain under the compact and just lose the $50-million for sports betting,” Sprowls said.

Sprowls says he thinks it still comes out as a good deal for Floridians. He says the sports betting component of the compact is just a small part of the larger agreement.

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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