Editorial: Voters should decide whether legal sports betting comes to Florida

Published May 15 2018
Updated May 16 2018

It’s a safe bet Florida will get caught up in the frenzy to legalize wagering on sports following the U.S. Supreme Court opinion this week that lifted a federal ban. Struggling horse and dog tracks would love a new line of business, and state legislators will have dollar signs dancing in their heads. But legalizing sports betting would reshape the state’s character and bring its own challenges, and at the very least any change should be approved statewide by voters.

The Supreme Court reached the correct legal conclusion. The 6-3 opinion found unconstitutional a 1992 federal law that prohibited states from authorizing sports gambling, concluding the federal government had not chosen to regulate it and improperly interfered with the states’ right to regulate it themselves. As Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion, the overturned federal law "regulates state governments’ regulation of their citizens. The Constitution gives Congress no such power.’’

That’s a victory for states’ rights, but it doesn’t mean Florida should rush to open the door to legal sports betting parlors at parimutuel facilities or in storefronts. That’s one step away from pursuing full-fledged casinos, and Tampa should not aspire to become the next Las Vegas. From New Jersey to Nevada, the evidence is clear that expanding legalized gambling does not guarantee a vibrant economy and creates regulatory and social headaches the Sunshine State could live without.

Fortunately, the timing of the Supreme Court opinion should give Florida some breathing room. The Legislature is not in session, and legislative leaders could not agree on a new gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe that would have opened the door to a special session. It wouldn’t be politically prudent for state lawmakers to rush to Tallahassee for a special session on sports betting this close to the election.

Second, there is an opportunity for Florida voters in November to make clear they want the direct authority to make decisions on casino gambling. A constitutional amendment is on the ballot that would require a voter referendum before any additional games "typically found in casinos’’ are allowed, and that would include sports betting. If that amendment wins at least 60 percent of the vote, it would guarantee that gambling interests could not use a mountain of campaign cash to prod the Legislature to approve sports betting with a law stacked in their favor.

For decades, the Times editorial board has opposed expansion of gambling in Florida. We have fought efforts to bring casino gambling to the state, and opposed the creation of the state lottery before voters approved it in 1986. Voters should remember that the bet on the lottery proved to be a fraud, because state proceeds that were promised to enhance education spending were instead used by legislators to supplant tax dollars that were shifted elsewhere. Any promise by elected officials to steer a state windfall from legalized sports betting to enhanced public services should be viewed with skepticism.

Yet there is a recognition that public opinion over legalized gambling has evolved. Sports betting is big business, either legally in Las Vegas or illegally elsewhere. Other states already are planning to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling, and even professional sports leagues that long opposed betting on their games sound ready to cash in and accept it. Imagine lines at betting kiosks at Raymond James Stadium before Tampa Bay Bucs games, or outside Tropicana Field before Tampa Bay Rays games. Or large sports betting rooms at St. Petersburg’s Derby Lane.

But shifting public views and billions of dollars on the table don’t mean legalized sports betting is right for Florida. There would be increased gambling and a change in atmosphere. There would be those gamblers who could not resist overextending themselves, become addicted and create financial and emotional strain on their families. There would be a public cost in additional services to deal with abuses.

There is an awful lot at stake beyond whether the Bucs could be counted on to cover the spread. Florida should be in no rush to pursue legalized sports betting, and voters rather than legislators should ultimately decide whether to embrace it.