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DeSantis may need Biden to save $ 2.5 billion gambling deal

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, seen here on November 6, may need President Joe Biden’s help to save a gambling deal. Ellen Schmidt / Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

TALLAHASSEE – Governor Ron DeSantis may need the help of his number one opponent: President Joe Biden.

A federal court ruling late Monday night scuttled a $ 2.5 billion gambling deal DeSantis negotiated with Florida’s Seminole tribe earlier this year. The move could end sports betting in the nation’s third largest state amid questions about what can be done to save the effort.

It will be up to the US Department of the Interior, which was responsible for approving the pact, to decide whether to appeal the decision of US District Judge Dabney Friedrich, appointed by former President Donald Trump. The tribe tried to intervene in the ongoing legal challenge, but the judge denied their request.

For the moment, the department is not commenting. DeSantis himself was not aware of the decision until a reporter told him about it at an early morning press conference in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday.

But that puts the governor – who regularly lashes out at Biden and gets caught up in legal clashes with the administration over vaccination warrants, cruise ships and immigration – in a very tough spot.

“We are reviewing the puzzling court decision, which certainly contains issues that can be appealed,” said Christina Pushaw, spokesperson for DeSantis. “Because neither the Seminole Tribe nor the State of Florida are parties to the case, it is unclear what immediate impact the ruling has on Florida. We look forward to working with the tribe to ensure the future success of the pact. “

Gary Bitner, spokesperson for the Seminoles, said the tribe “is considering the judge’s opinion and carefully considering their next steps.” The tribe, however, was still operating its mobile sports betting operation on Tuesday after the ruling was released.

In May, Florida lawmakers granted DeSantis an important victory when they approved the 30-year pact, giving the tribe control over sports betting in Florida, including through a mobile app that would allow someone to make a bet regardless of where it is located in the state.

This same deal also allows the Seminoles to add craps and roulette to their existing casinos, as well as build additional new casinos on tribal-owned land in South Florida. The deal was designed to replace an earlier deal that fell apart amid acrimony and accusations.

The game’s rivals as well as longtime gambling opponents have opposed the deal and, in a pair of lawsuits, sued the Home Office for its approval of the pact because the agency authorized the pact. to become law in August. Their main argument: the agreement violated Indian federal gambling laws, as it allowed gambling outside of tribal lands. The backers had claimed that such an arrangement could withstand legal scrutiny, as the actual bet was administratively managed on tribal property.

Freidrich, however, sided with the opponents and said “this court cannot accept this fiction. When a federal law allows activity only in specific places, the parties cannot escape this limitation by “assuming” that their activity takes place where, in fact, it does not. ”

Freidrich also argued that sports betting could not be allowed outside of tribal lands because voters in the state did not approve of it. Voters in Florida in 2018 approved a citizens’ initiative that required future casino gaming expansions to be put on the ballot – although the mandate does not apply to tribal lands.

John Sowinski, chairman of No Casinos, which opposed the pact, called the move a “justification” that echoed what gambling opponents had told lawmakers.

“That’s what we’ve been saying from the start – it doesn’t pass the detection test to say that a bet made in downtown Orlando or downtown Miami or downtown Jacksonville will takes place on tribal land, ”Sowinski said.

DeSantis said Tuesday he knew the sports betting argument was an “unresolved legal issue,” but defended including it in the final deal. He said it “made sense” because voters likely would have approved of it if he had come before them.

State Representative Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican who helped guide gambling legislation earlier this year, predicted in the House that the sports betting portion of the pact would be overturned by the courts . But Fine was furious that Freidrich had canceled other parts of the deal, such as adding roulette to the Seminole casinos. Lawmakers had included a clause stating that other parts of the deal could go ahead even if sports betting were declared illegal – but the Home Office did not report it to the judge.

“I don’t know if Joe Biden is intentionally fucking Florida, but that shouldn’t have happened,” said Fine, a frequent critic of the Biden administration. “Their inability to make this point is inconceivable and unacceptable… Joe Biden owes the State of Florida $ 500 million a year forever.”

Yet who exactly is to blame is still a point of contention. Daniel Wallach, a Florida-based gambling and sports betting attorney, said the responsibility did not lie with the Department of the Interior.

“It’s not their pact, it’s not their fight,” said Wallach, who instead blamed the Seminoles because they sought to intervene in the matter without trying to defend the whole pact.

Wallach predicted the department could appeal the decision, but said the odds of winning were slim.

“The best course for the state and the Seminol tribe is to go back and approve a new pact,” Wallach said.

One possible solution is to get state lawmakers – who have struggled to balance competing gambling interests against each other – to get back into the fray. Friedrich, in his ruling, suggested lawmakers could go back and allow sports betting at tribal casinos only, or voters could allow it at the polls.

In a joint statement, State House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Florida Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson dodged questions about what they might do next. The two Republican lawmakers said the ruling “addresses new and complex legal issues. We believe the case will be appealed to the DC Circuit, and possibly ultimately, the United States Supreme Court. In the meantime, we will be watching. “

Voters in 2022 could also have the final verdict when there could be two constitutional amendments on ballot play – if organizers can muster the nearly 900,000 signatures they need by February. An amendment – pushed by Las Vegas Sands – would allow new casinos in existing card rooms if they are located more than 130 miles from Seminole casinos.

Gaming companies DraftKings and FanDuel are funding an initiative that would allow sports betting statewide and not just through the Seminole tribe. The two companies have already invested $ 32 million in the effort. The group sponsoring the amendment – Florida Education Champions – said on Tuesday it had already collected more than 500,000 signatures and remained focused on continuing that effort.

“Our efforts have always been mutually exclusive of the pact,” said Christina Johnson, spokesperson for Florida Education Champions. “Now is the time for all the entities to come together so that we can provide a competitive legal sports betting market for Floridians, while generating the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue expected for the Florida Educational Enhancement Trust Fund. “

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