Gambling Status in the Sunshine State Still Cloudy With Uncertainties

Despite the approval of voters via referendums, recent bids by the Florida legislature to add additional casinos and gambling throughout Florida failed to come to a final agreement that would allow Florida to make those changes.

Republican legislators made the final announcement on Tuesday to say that they were not going to try to pass any final pieces of gambling-related legislation before the annual session ends on Friday. According to Miami Republican Representative Jose Felix Diaz, who had led the push in the House, the two sides were simply too far apart to reach an agreement before the end of the session.

Attempting to pass gambling-related legislation in Florida is a tough job. The many competing interests, from the gambling industry to the Seminole tribes to the state tourism industry, all have stakes in the negotiations. Most of the stumbling blocks came from the voter referendums to allow eight Florida counties to add new slot machines at pre-existing dog and horse racing tracks.

Even though the referendums were approved by voters, according to the State Attorney General’s office those tracks have no legalized authority to add slot machines, and progress has stalled. Now the Florida Supreme Court is getting involved. They are considering a lawsuit which will challenge the state’s position on the slot machines but have not ruled on the case as of yet.

The Florida legislature got involved as well, but State Republicans have declined to push through legislation regarding the county referendums, partially because in the past, legalizing slot machines at horse and dog racing tracks required a statewide referendum, not a county-wide referendum.

Florida gambling lacks the high profile of major destinations such as Atlantic City and Las Vegas, but it exists despite technically being “illegal.” It exists in theme parks, beaches, and local hangouts known primarily to locals and the snow birds who migrate south every winter. Dog and horse racing venues exist throughout the state, and those in South Florida have been permitted to add slot machines.

The Seminole Tribe operates several popular Florida casinos including the Hard Rock in Tampa and Hollywood. Since 2010, they have paid nearly two billion dollars to the state of Florida from their gambling revenues, and continue to offer blackjack exclusively despite a provision that the agreement ended in 2015.

The lack of a deal this year means that the gambling landscape will very possibly go to the courts. If the Supreme Court approves the slot machine measure in the eight counties which passed the referendum, then legislators may have to hold a special session in order to pass appropriate regulations.

Another gaming issue lingers in Florida as well. Fantasy Sports have been classified as illegal gambling since an attorney general labeled them as such in 1991, but that has not stopped them from taking off in popularity in recent decades. Due to the continued failure of gaming bills to become law, legislators have not yet succeeded in reclassifying fantasy sports as legal in Florida, leaving the legality of the popular pastime still in doubt for another year.