TALLAHASSEE — Steering money from gambling to public education convinced Florida voters to sign off on a state lottery more than three decades ago.
Now, sports-betting behemoths are banking on a similar strategy to legalize sports gambling across the state in a move that could unravel the cornerstone of a $2.5 billion deal recently struck by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe.
A political committee backed by DraftKings and FanDuel, two major online sports-betting platforms, have filed a proposed constitutional amendment with the state Division of Elections that would legalize sports betting and direct the state’s proceeds from the popular activity to education.
The proposed constitutional amendment, sponsored by a political committee known as Florida Education Champions, would authorize sports betting at professional sports venues, pari-mutuel facilities and statewide via online platforms.
If betting revenues are taxed, the tax dollars would have to go into what is known as the state Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, according to the proposed amendment, posted Thursday on the state Division of Elections website.
“The Florida Division of Elections just approved the committee’s request to be assigned an official serial number for ballot placement, so we may immediately begin the petition collection process and thereby initiate efforts to generate substantial revenue that can be directed to Florida’s public education system — without raising taxes,” Christina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the committee, said in a prepared statement. Johnson’s husband David, a veteran Republican operative, is chairman of the committee.
The proposal would undo an agreement, known as a “compact,” signed by DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. in April that would put the tribe in control of sports betting in the state. Lawmakers approved the compact in a special legislative session last month. The compact would provide $2.5 billion in payments to the state over five years, with additional money in the ensuing years.
The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian gambling issues, received the compact June 21. That started a 45-day window for the federal agency’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve the deal, reject it or allow it to go into effect without taking any action.
Under the compact, the tribe would serve as the hub for online sports betting throughout the state, with pari-mutuel operators contracting with it. The plan would allow people in the state to place sports bets using apps on cellphones, with the Seminoles hosting the sports-betting activity through computer servers on tribal lands.
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The proposed constitutional amendment “is a political Hail Mary from out-of-state corporations trying to interfere with the business of the people of Florida,” Seminole Gaming spokesman Gary Bitner said in an email.
“They couldn’t stop Florida’s new gaming compact, which passed by an overwhelming 88 percent ‘yes’ vote from Florida’s elected legislators and enjoys 3-to-1 support from Floridians and guarantees $2.5 billion in revenue sharing. The guarantee is the largest commitment by any gaming company in U.S. history,” Bitner added.
To get the proposed constitutional amendment on the 2022 ballot, the Florida Education Champions committee would need to submit 891,589 valid petition signatures to the state by Feb. 1. It also would need sign-off from the Florida Supreme Court on the proposed ballot wording.
Backers of the proposal are rushing to gather contributions before Thursday, the effective date of a new law placing a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees during the petition-gathering phase of ballot-initiative campaigns.
Republican lawmakers, who approved the contribution cap during the legislative session that ended in April, argued that it is necessary to keep high-rolling donors from amending the state Constitution.
But critics of the cap maintain that it will make it impossible to gather the requisite signatures to place proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. Petition drives typically cost millions of dollars.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and political committees behind three voting-related proposed constitutional amendments filed a lawsuit challenging the contribution cap. Plaintiffs have asked U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor to block the law from going into effect next week. Winsor held a hearing Thursday on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction but has not ruled.
John Sowinski, president of the group No Casinos, blasted the sports-betting proposal. Sowinski’s group also opposed the sports-betting provision in the Seminole compact, which likely will face a number of legal hurdles even if federal officials authorize it.
“The type of modern internet sports betting authorized in this amendment is not simply betting on outcomes and point spreads,” Sowinski said in a statement.
The proposed sports-betting amendment “includes highly addictive ‘props betting’ continually pinging gamblers through smartphone apps to entice them into betting on things like, ‘Will the first play of the next series of downs be a run or a pass’ or, ‘Will Tiger make this putt,’” Sowinkski said.
“Countries that have this type of betting have shown troubling spikes in teen gambling and addiction, a recipe for long-term social and economic costs that far outweigh any perceived benefits,” Sowinski added.