Gambling Ruling Not a Winning Ticket in Florida

photo by dara kam, news service of florida

TALLAHASSEE — A U.S. Supreme Court decision viewed as a major win for the gambling industry opened the door to sports betting in states across the country, but Florida almost certainly won’t be one of them — at least for now.

Monday’s decision in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, a case the state of New Jersey brought as a challenge to a law known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, found that a federal ban on state-sanctioned sports betting is unconstitutional.

As the Supreme Court considered the case, some states filed legislation to authorize lucrative sports betting in anticipation of the federal law being struck down.

But in Florida, two major obstacles — a ballot initiative and the need for a special legislative session — stand in the way of joining states such as Mississippi and Pennsylvania, which have cleared the decks to allow gamblers to bet on professional and collegiate sports teams as soon as the NFL season begins in the fall.

A proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot will allow Florida voters to decide if they want to control decisions about gambling, something now largely left up to the Legislature. If Amendment 3 passes, voters statewide would have to sign off on future gambling expansions.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who has been a lead negotiator on gambling issues for several years, told The News Service of Florida on Monday the high court ruling won’t have an immediate impact on Florida, where sports betting is illegal.

“The ruling does not automatically change the gaming landscape in Florida,” said Galvano, a lawyer who will take over as Senate president after the November elections. “I believe it will create more interest in pursuing some types of sports betting, on behalf of the pari-mutuels as well as the (Seminole) tribe and some independent entities. But all of that is overshadowed by the pending constitutional amendment, which may create tremendous obstacles for any type of sports betting to come into the state.”

Galvano and his House counterpart, Miami Lakes Republican Jose Oliva, last month raised the possibility of a special session to address perpetually elusive gambling issues but abandoned the notion after Gov. Rick Scott secured a yearlong gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe. The agreement is focused on the tribe’s promise to continue making payments to the state in exchange for “exclusivity” over “banked” card games, such as blackjack.

A special session in reaction to Monday’s court decision is “very unlikely,” Galvano said.

Florida’s gambling operators could lose out on big bucks if the state doesn’t get into the sports-betting game.

“The economic impact of allowing sports betting cannot be understated: Legal sports betting in Las Vegas takes in over $5 billion each year, and most estimates put the value of illegal sports betting in the United States at up to $100 billion,” Amy Howe wrote on the SCOTUSblog website, which closely covers Supreme Court cases, after Monday’s decision.

Sports gambling is “a benefit for anybody with a tourist-based economy,” Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents the gambling industry and who teaches gambling law at Florida State University, told the News Service.

“Florida’s going to miss out. Mississippi is going to implement it, and it’s going to benefit the Biloxi casinos on the coast. Unfortunately, our hoteliers and our resorts and casinos won’t be able to benefit from that,” he said.

The proposed constitutional amendment would make it harder for Floridians to have sports gambling, said Dunbar, a Tallahassee-based partner with the law firm Jones Walker.

“This would probably be another reason why folks should vote against Amendment 3. If you want to have sports gambling in Florida, you probably want to vote no on Amendment 3,” he said.

But John Sowinski, the chairman of Voters in Charge, a political committee behind the amendment, called the court ruling another reason to support the proposed constitutional amendment because the measure would give voters a say in gambling activities.

“A lot of people in Florida would be relieved to know that, if we’re going to have sports gambling in this state, it’s going to happen by design of Florida voters, not by Tallahassee politicians and gambling lobbyists,” he said.

If the amendment doesn’t pass, sports betting will become an integral component of the Legislature’s discussions about thorny gambling issues, which some have likened to a three-dimensional game of chess even without the latest gambling twist.

“I’m just letting things play out. We’ll see what happens in November,” Galvano said.


— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban of News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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