Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg

State lawmakers nationwide are trying to capitalize on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association that allows states to approve their own legal sports betting programs.

Since the ruling, 19 states have legalized sports betting, including 14 in 2019, according to Congressional Quarterly/Fiscal Note. Another handful of states have authorized sports betting, but have not cobbled together regulatory structures for the programs.

The emergence of legal sports betting has disrupted some states’ compacts with Indian gaming operations, particularly in Florida, where the state and the Seminole Tribe have not negotiated a new revenue-sharing agreement in part because of disputes over who will control sports gambling.

With the loss of roughly $350 million in annual Seminole payments until a new compact is secured, some legislators want to refashion the state’s gambling programs independent of the Tribe’s casino operations.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed three related bills that would legalize sports betting in Florida for anyone 21 or older, placing regulatory authority with the state’s Department of Lottery.

Brandes, citing estimates that gamblers spend $150 billion a year on illegal sports bets, said taxed legal sports gaming could generate significant revenues for state education programs.

“In absence of a well-regulated structure, we’ve seen a complex underground industry developed in Florida, potentially breeding habits of addiction, while robbing our government of revenue that should be collected and remitted for education,” Brandes said. “This legislation creates a legal framework in which Floridians can choose how to spend their time and money, without worry of being criminalized.”

SB 968 creates “a pathway” to obtain a sports betting license through the Department of Lottery. The license would allow entities to offer in-person and kiosk betting opportunities.

The bill places restrictions on who, when and where sports bets may be placed through licensed operators and requires notification of criminal action by, or disciplinary proceedings against, a licensee or its employees.

The proposed measure would prohibit “certain people who might have an unfair advantage from betting.” “Certain people” include those “who have inside knowledge of a sports team because they work for the organization or who otherwise have access to information that could give them an edge in predicting outcomes.”

Those with “legal or financial stakes in sports teams” will also be banned from betting under the proposed bill.

Brandes’ related SB 970 establishes a $100,000 sports gaming license application and renewal fee while SB 972 sets a 15-percent tax rate on sports gaming and requires licensees to pay taxes “under oath on the fifth day of each calendar month.”

Brandes’ bills have not been assigned committees. They did not have House companions by Wednesday afternoon.

The proposals drew immediate flak from anti-gaming Voters In Charge Chair John Sowinski, who claimed in Twitter comments that Brandes’ bills are unconstitutional under recently adopted Amendment 3.

Sowinski spearheaded Voters In Charge’s $45 million Amendment 3 proposal that was approved by 71 percent of the November 2018 ballot. The measure “ensures Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling.”

According to Sowinski, the state constitution defines “casino gambling” as anything that falls under the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act’s Class III gaming definitions, which includes sports betting.

“Amendment 3 has one main thing. It says if it’s casino gambling, it requires approval by citizen constitutional amendment,” Sowinski said. “The Legislature is not even allowed to propose it or put it on the ballot. It really could not be more crystal clear."

Sowinski cited an April opinion by former Florida First District Court of Appeals Judge Paul Hawkes that lawmakers would violate “voter intent” in adopting Amendment 3 if they approved sports betting via legislation.

“In 2018, a multi-million dollar campaign effort by sports gambling and pari-mutuel interests opposing Amendment 3 provided considerable accurate context about how Amendment 3 would effect sports gambling and player-designated games,” Hawkes wrote. “The intent of the voters was informed by numerous statements that create a record to which courts can turn to for an understanding of what voters understood the amendment to do.”

“Sorry – the bill is unconstitutional,” Sowinski wrote. “When it comes to casino gambling – and yes, sports betting falls under that definition – the voters are in charge.”

Brandes told Florida Politics that Amendment 3 only relates to casino gambling and that sports gaming is not restricted to casinos, although he acknowledged the bills warrant thorough vetting.

“We think it’s an open question and one that the Legislature should look to address,” Brandes said. “We would expect a thorough analysis with the committee and through that analysis we’ll address issues if they present themselves. But in my due diligence, we believe the Legislature has the purview to let the lottery provide legal sports betting.”