Travis Hutson takes center stage as Legislature mulls gambling overhaul

Key Senator previews gambling Special Session.

State Sen. Travis Hutson has a central role going into a momentous week for Florida, as the state prepares to ratify a new Seminole Compact.

The Legislature comes back Monday to take up the new gaming Compact with the Seminole Tribe. The 75-page document will determine the long-term future of gaming in the state, including the introduction of online sports betting and an expansion of gaming at tribal facilities. However, the Legislature must implement the Compact before it goes into effect.

Hutson, a Republican from St. Johns County who chairs the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, will carry nine bills into the Senate Appropriations Committee, including the formal deal, and legislation dealing with a revamped state gaming control commissionbingo and fantasy sports.

The ambitious larger framework would hold until 2051, as currently contemplated, putting $500 million a year into the state’s coffers from the tribal accord.

Hutson anticipates a protracted process and knows that some lifts will be heavier than others.

“The votes are going to be there, but some will vote no,” Hutson said, noting that some senators are opposed to gambling altogether.

As well, if the larger compact with the Seminole Tribe is struck down in federal court, so too will these other bills, Hutson notes, adding more drama.

“The bills are standalone on their own. However, they are tied to the Compact,” Hutson noted. “Should the Compact be struck down [in court], those all get struck down too.”

The bills also could “die on their own merits,” Hutson said.

Legislation related to revenue collection, such as the fee collection bills that are part of the Senate package, has to pass with a two-thirds majority. Hutson will work with leadership to ensure consensus there, he said.

But a clear concern is members “peeling off” for one reason or another on the subsidiary legislation.

The baseline deal would at once transform Florida’s gambling landscape and reestablish a historic relationship between the Tribe and the state.

The plan contemplates $2.5 billion in new revenue over the next five years and $6 billion through 2030, reestablishing the revenue flow between the Tribe and the state and setting a 30-year term.

The bill also opens up craps and roulette for the Tribe, and designated player games for the smaller, unaffiliated gambling concerns throughout the state. Additionally, casinos now tied to pari-mutuel racing could continue to operate game rooms without running races, with 30 tables permitted.

As well, the Compact gives the Tribe exclusive control of sports betting in Florida, allowing bets to be placed on their properties and digitally, via the Hard Rock Digital app. Seminoles would also get to franchise fantasy/rotisserie sports leagues, as would pari-mutuels.

“The Tribe is the front, the skim,” Hutson said, with local non-tribal gambling operations essentially subletting the franchise.

As Hutson expects, a larger company like DraftKings or FanDuel would run the back end of the operations. Multiple websites, Hutson says, would allow customers to shop for variables ranging from user experience to the most advantageous point spreads in upcoming games.

Sports gambling, he said, would be “geofenced,” meaning that only Florida IP addresses could access these sites.

Fantasy sports options would open up. Private fantasy sports leagues would still be allowed, Hutson said, but winnings would be capped at $10,000 per year for fantasy players outside the regulated system.

Bingo also would expand to the pari-mutuels, which Hutson says lobbied for the added franchise saying they thought they could make money. However, without House legislation along these lines, they would have to accede to the Senate product.

The revamped state gaming control commission would have its watchful eye on all these changes. Hutson likens it to the Public Service Commission in terms of its oversight role. In addition to handling issues related to the new regulatory structure, it would also be able to dig into issues like internet cafes and rogue slot operations that bedevil local leaders across the state.

A group called No Casinos is already threatening to challenge the compact in court if it is ratified as expected, claiming that the renewed deal would circumvent the Florida Constitution, with specific concerns about sports betting, gambling outside the physical property of the Tribe, and the decoupling of game rooms from pari-mutuels.

But in the Ron DeSantis era, where most key legislation is subject to one legal challenge or another, litigation is baked into the cake.

In a memo Friday to lawmakers, Senate President Wilton Simpson defended the proposed bills.

“In total, the proposed gaming legislation seeks to balance the requirements of federal Indian gaming law, the complex pari-mutuel regulatory structure established over decades, and the need to better enforce restrictions against illegal gaming, all while adhering to the new constitutional restrictions on casino-style gaming,” Simpson said in the memo, reported by the News Service of Florida.