Florida Amendment 3, a ballot initiative on gambling, is presented as a way for greater citizen input on gambling expansion. In reality, it’s a ploy that would restrict almost any chance for future gambling developments, including sports betting. Backed by millions of dollars from groups with direct interests to stop more gambling, the ballot measure could cost Floridians millions of dollars in a state that is already one of the nation’s largest beneficiaries of gambling revenues.
The Sunshine State legalized bets on horse racing in 1931 and a state lottery in 1987, both actions where more or less in line with the majority of other states that allowed limited forms of gambling. In 1988, the U.S. congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a sweeping legislation that allowed Native American tribes the ability to set up casinos on tribal land.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida, one of the most influential tribes in the state, took advantage of the opportunity and in the next 20 years set up seven casinos across the state. The Miccosukee Tribe also built a casino on their land in Miami-Dade County, bringing eight total tribal-owned facilities to Florida.
As part of the gaming act, state governments worked with tribes to establish rules to allow “Las Vegas” style games like slot machines, roulette and blackjack. A compact was approved in 2010 and updated in 2015 to include craps and roulette. The tribes received the exclusive right to offer these games, which aren’t available at the state’s racetracks, in exchange for more than $250 million a year back to the state.
Though the agreements between the state and tribes have been at times contentious, both parties have worked to protect it. It’s provided more than $1 billion to the Florida government and hundreds of millions more dollars to the tribes.
Opponents of these negotiations have said lobbying has unfairly biased lawmakers in these decisions. A group called Voters in Charge procured nearly 900,000 verified signatures for a ballot initiative in the 2018 elections to amend the state constitution to prevent legislators from enacting any bills that would change existing gambling laws.
The campaign has promoted itself as a way to give Florida residents a final say on proposed expansion away from industry influencers. In reality the motivation is to prevent any new gambling opportunities for the state. Ironically, the group supporting this amendment have benefited from biased lobbying themselves.
The two biggest financial supporters of this initiative are opposed to gambling. Disney has given more than $9.65 million to promote the amendment. The amusement park titan wants to prevent any casino growth for fear it would damage the state’s reputation for family tourism.
The second-biggest is, not surprisingly, the Seminole Tribe. With what is essentially a monopoly on most typical casino games, the tribe clearly doesn’t want any other casinos allowed in the state.
Though lawmakers are often criticized for the pace of legislation, a group of 140 elected lawmakers in Tallahassee are much more nimble than votes from a state of more than 20 million people. Under existing laws, the state’s representatives and senators could realistically pass a law for a new casino or regulation in a few days. If the amendment passes, it would take months or even years to get it on a ballot before voters.
Once there, it faces greater challenges to passage even if it would be in the best interest of the state. Only three out of four Floridians vote in a typical presidential election years and only about half do in off-year elections, such as the one in November of this year. Especially in off year elections, the voting electorate is older, more conservative and more gambling opposed than most citizen, unfairly biasing the results against gambling expansion.
Most opposition comes from unfounded, unquantifiable concerns about morality. In reality, Florida, and other states with more expansive gambling laws like Nevada and New Jersey, have progressed without some feared morale degradation. In reality, gambling in these states have provided millions in dollars to state government, which in turn has funded government programs that help citizens, all without raising taxes.
Floridians have experienced this firsthand. In addition to the more than $1 billion from the Native American tribes, the Florida lottery has funded hundreds of millions in scholarships for college students. When regulated appropriately, gambling expansion could further these economic opportunities, a possibility that becomes much more difficult when every decision is required to face a public referendum.
If more than 60 percent of Floridian voters approve Amendment 3 in November, it would likely prevent any new gambling opportunities in the state. Though sports betting is not explicitly mentioned in the existing gaming compact or in the proposed amendment, a ratified Amendment 3 would almost assuredly need to be approved by voters and not lawmakers in Tallahassee.
With more and more states legalizing sports betting or passing legislation to do so, this could leave Florida further behind in the chance to garner revenue opportunities these states have already gained. Not only does sports betting provide the state money, but it pulls in tourism dollars on related industries like hotels and restaurants. Florida has long been known as one of the nation’s premier tourism destination, but a failure to embrace sports betting could prompt tourism elsewhere.
Mississippi will become the first state in the southeastern part of the nation to accept sports bets in the coming weeks and more states in the south and nationwide will follow. Framed as a way to strengthen voters rights, the push to prevent the state legislature from controlling gambling laws is in reality a way to prevent an irrational fear that in reality hurts the state’s financial wellbeing.
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