Facing South Florida: Florida Legislature Special Session

Jim DeFede interviewed the president of the No Casinos campaign.

Video Transcript

- Now, from CBS4 News, this is Facing South Florida, with Jim DeFede.

JIM DEFEDE: Good morning, I'm Jim DeFede and welcome to Facing South Florida. On Monday, the Florida Legislature will begin a special session to consider an agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would expand gambling across the state in ways I don't think the public fully understands. So one of the things I want to do this morning, is break down what critics say is the largest expansion of gambling in the state's history.

Now, under this deal the Seminole will be allowed to add craps and roulette to their existing casinos. But even more consequential, under this agreement you will be able to bet on sporting events with the Seminole now acting as your bookie, and in return the state will be guaranteed $500 million a year for five years. Think about that for a second. The tribe would now have the exclusive right to sports betting in Florida, and I will be able to make a bet anywhere in the state on my phone.

And here's where it gets tricky, because under the law the Seminole are only allowed to offer gambling on tribal land. This was one of the major selling points for the original agreement with the Seminole more than a decade ago, that gambling would be limited to a handful of locations across the state. But under this deal, my phone, essentially, becomes the tribal casino. I can place a bet anywhere I want in Florida, as long as the server that my phone is communicating with is located on tribal land. But wait, there's more.

After this deal is approved, the state and the Seminole Tribe will begin negotiating another deal, which would allow slot machines and poker and other games on my phone and on my computer as long the a server for those games is on tribal land. Now at this point, it's worth remembering that in 2018, nearly 72% of Floridians passed Amendment 3, which says voters have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling in the state of Florida. Lawmakers, however, have no plans of placing this deal in front of voters to hear what they have to say.

As we get ready for the session, I spoke to John Sowinski, President of No Casinos, who pushed Amendment 3 and has been arguing against casino gambling for years. What's your impression of the deal that the governor has struck with the Seminole?

JOHN SOWINSKI: Well, it's a bad deal because it expands gambling throughout Florida both on and off of tribal lands. One of the benefits of a compact between states and tribes, is the opportunity to confine gambling to geographic-- specific geographic areas, and that's tribal lands. This compact not only blows the lid on all of that by relying on this fantasy that if the betting occurs on a mobile device but the file server is on tribal lands, that the gambling is taking place on tribal lands. This defies not only common sense but federal law and the State Constitution.

JIM DEFEDE: The argument in favor of this is that gambling is already pretty much here in the state of Florida. You have it in lots of different options, lots of different forms, around the state already and this is a way of generating a lot of money for the state at a time when the state can use those dollars. I mean, the tribe is guaranteeing 2 and 1/2 billion minimum over the next five years, doesn't that make it worth it?

JOHN SOWINSKI: No, there are a couple of things. One, Jim, any independent economic analysis and even the state's own regular revenue estimators have looked at the question of gambling revenues, and what they found is that money spent gambling-- whether it be on a mobile device or in a casino-- is money not spent somewhere else in the economy. Usually at a restaurant, or a bar, or a movie theater, or a tourist attraction, or whatever the case may be. And so this is not new money into the economy and it's not new money into state coffers, and it comes with a host of social costs. We live in a society, that when people become addicted and become needy, that we, a society, step forward and fill the gap. And so we believe it would end up actually costing taxpayers' money, because of addiction that would go on the rise.

Now, the piece of this that's interesting is both the sports betting piece, and there is buried in the text of the compact-- in the miscellaneous section at the very end-- a requirement that the state enter into negotiations within 36 months with the tribe for full online e-betting, for any casino game on a mobile device. Essentially, turning every cell phone into a slot machine. And where we have a lot of mobile betting in places where it is legal-- and back to your question about, gosh, we got it going on, it's not legal in a lot of circumstances.

Well, what they find with gambling is that the more legal gambling that there is, the more illegal gambling that there is. And that has an effect on kids to the point that more than half of 11- to 16-year-olds in England-- I point out England, because they're one of the very few mature markets with this form of props betting and sports betting, where you're not just betting on it's the Dolphins by 7:00, you're betting on is the next play from scrimmage going to be a handoff or a pass. Is Tiger going to sink the putt in one stroke or two. You know, these sorts of things get constantly re-marketed, and for that reason, are very, very addictive. And kids are getting a hold of it and using it. It's creating big problems in England, and we don't want those problems here in Florida.

JIM DEFEDE: Well, let me go back to something you said earlier because it seems counter-intuitive to me. If I have the ability to gamble legally through my phone, or by placing a bet at a casino, why would I then go to an illegal bookie instead to do the same thing? Doesn't it take it from, you know, a shady back room and brings it into an area that could now be regulated? You will now have a gaming commission, you will have rules in place. Wouldn't people be better served by bringing it out into the open?

JOHN SOWINSKI: In certain circumstances certain people would make the shift from what they're doing that's not legal now, to means that were legal. But what it does is it grows a whole other market for the illegal, for two reasons. One, the underage better is not going to be allowed into the-- it's going to be-- it would be better policed, one would hope, in the legal form that it would be in illegal form. So that's one thing. And the other thing is that people seek better odds from less. The more people that get involved with gambling, they enjoy it a lot and they say, hey, this other site has better odds than does the regulated site, and they end up there as well. But I've yet to see a study that doesn't demonstrate that where you elevate the amount of legal gambling, you also elevate the amount of illegal gambling.

JIM DEFEDE: So let's now turn to the issue of whether or not voters should have a say in this. I spoke last week to Senate President Wilton Simpson. He says that it's his understanding that the public does not need to vote on this. He says he's not a lawyer but he knows that there are views on both sides, but that he's persuaded by those who believe that it is not necessary to I have this compact go before voters, that this is the province of the governor and the state legislature. You disagree, why?

JOHN SOWINSKI: Sure. There is a couple of reasons. One, our Constitution, we wrote Amendment 3 to be unequivocal. It says that voters of-- the people of Florida, the voters of Florida, have the exclusive right to legalize casino gambling in the state. The Legislature does not even have the authority to propose an expansion of casino gambling onto the ballot. It has to be put to the ballot by citizen initiative. Now, those who say that the compact does not trigger Amendment 3 and does not fall under it, they're wrong for two reasons. Number one, is that they rely on this fiction that if the gambling is happening-- and it could be happening at your home, or my office, or wherever in Florida it may be-- that legally, it's happening on tribal lands if the file server that is serving that up is on tribal lands. That's incorrect.

JIM DEFEDE: If the legislature goes ahead and approves this compact, talk to me about what next steps are. Is one of the steps that has to be taken, that it has to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, does it have to be approved at Washington on that level by the Interior Secretary as well?

JOHN SOWINSKI: That is correct. That is correct. It would have to be approved by the federal government, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Interior.

JIM DEFEDE: So the first step would be challenging it in Washington, but do you also envision that if the legislature-- and it seems all but certain that the legislature is going to approve this compact. I've sensed no real resistance among legislators about moving forward with this. So if the legislature approves it, do you first challenge in Washington, or do you also simultaneously file a lawsuit and is it state or federal court to try to block the compact?

JOHN SOWINSKI: I think there are parallel paths. It certainly violates Amendment 3 by not giving voters control of gambling both on and off of tribal lands. I have deep respect for the rights of tribal nations to operate what IGRA, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, says that they can operate on tribal lands on the reservation. But the minute we try and say that anywhere is considered tribal lands because of a connection in cyberspace, that opens the door to anything and everything. And if the history of gambling in Florida teaches us anything, it's that where voters or legislators have given an inch, gambling interests have taken a mile, and this leaves so many doors open.

It is, in and of itself, the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida history. One gambling analyst said it would have Florida rivaling Nevada and Macau, China, for the amount of gambling that takes place in the state. I don't think anybody wants to remake our state into Nevada or Macau. But the other thing is, that if you look at this from the quality of the deal financially, the original compact in 2010 paid the state $350 million a year. All the tribe got were slot machines and blackjack, and the blackjack was only at a couple of facilities of theirs.

And now with this, it adds craps, it adds roulette, it adds sports betting on the reservation, it adds sports betting off the reservation, and it adds a guarantee of negotiations for full online e-betting within three years. And the tribe goes from-- and the tribe goes from paying $350 million to $500 billion, and the best I can see it's an exponential increase in gambling and a marginal increase and in return. So maybe 100%, 200%, 300% increase in gambling and the state gets 30% more revenue? Not a good deal, not a good deal.

JIM DEFEDE: So then why do you think Governor DeSantis moved forward with this deal?

JOHN SOWINSKI: I think that there is, in Tallahassee, there's a desire to have a deal. I think in Tallahassee-- Tallahassee is a place where when something has been kicked around so long-- and in the case of a seminal compact, there's been discussions dating back to 2015 on this matter and before-- that everyone who's an office holder looks and says, those folks before me couldn't get it done, but by golly I can get it done. So there's virtue in Tallahassee of getting a deal done, even if it's not a particularly good deal.

JIM DEFEDE: You recently did a poll across the state of Florida on the compact, tell me what you found.

JOHN SOWINSKI: Sure. What we found was, number one, is that we asked people do we have too much gambling in Florida, too little gambling in Florida, or do we have an appropriate amount of gambling. And a plurality, about 44% said that we had an appropriate amount of gambling. Too little gambling was 16%, too much gambling was 13%. That's hardly a mandate for action or any expansion of gambling, much less a major one that is represented in this compact. The other thing that we found was that 76% of Florida voters believe that this compact should be decided by voters, not politicians in Tallahassee.

JIM DEFEDE: We'll be right back to discuss Robert Runcie's big payday when we return.