Gambling In The State Of Florida

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Florida Online Gambling Bill Proposed Last Year Sputters in Senate Committee

Ah, Florida, the Sunshine State. Long known as a haven for retirees and a playground for the young, affluent jet set, Florida has offered residents and tourists alike the opportunity to enjoy various forms of gambling in addition to its many other entertainment choices, such as its lovely beaches and vibrant nightlife. Gambling lovers in Florida already have horse and greyhound racing venues, jai-alai, eight tribal casinos, and casino boats, as well as a state lottery.

So it’s no wonder that Florida state Rep. Joe Abruzzo proposed a bill in January, 2011, that would allow portals to online poker rooms to be available at horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons. The proposal stated that the state of Florida would receive 10 percent of the revenue from the money generated by these poker portals. Abruzzo had said that it doesn’t make sense that while Floridians participate in online poker, the state of Florida wasn’t receiving any of the revenue. “We want to legalize it, regulate it and bring the revenue to Florida,” Abruzzo said. “To me it’s common sense to protect our players.”[1]

But the proposed legislation never made it that far. The proposal’s companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, went belly up in a 2-2 stalemate in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in April, 2011. For now, that means the possibility of legal online gambling within Florida is dead until at least 2018.

While supporters of the bill may be disappointed that it didn’t pass, some gambling proponents are pleased because they believe any law legalizing online gambling should be done at the federal level. One such group is the Poker Players Alliance (PPA). “We weren’t pleased with how the bill was drafted,” said PPA executive director John Pappas. “We’ve always stated a strong preference for federal legislation.” The PPA is the largest lobbying organization fighting for the rights of U.S. poker players to be allowed to play poker online from the privacy of their own homes. Although still advocating regulations at the federal level, the PPA just wants Americans to be able to play online poker, and will support legalization on a state-by-state basis in the absence of federal legislation.[2]

In February, 2018, Florida legislators also grappled over a bill that would have allowed three resort casinos to be built in South Florida. But Rep. Erik Fresen, the bill’s sponsor, chose not to let the bill go to a committee vote in the House after realizing the bill did not have the votes to move on. However, much like Rep. Abruzzo’s online gambling proposal, Fresen’s mega-casino bill will likely resurface with a vengeance in the Florida legislature’s 2018 session.[3]

Horses, Greyhounds, Crime Bosses and Seminoles–Florida’s Diverse History of Gambling

Florida has been home to some form of gambling since before the 1900s. It began when Standard Oil partner Henry Flagler built and opened the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888 in St. Augustine. Within months, the gambling visionary also opened the Bacchus Club, not far from his hotel and it quickly became a gambling hotspot. Flagler would go on to build several other hotels. Each time he did so, he would also construct “both a house of chance and, nearby, a house of prayer.”[4]

By the 1920s, the Cuban numbers game bolita[5] swept South Florida. Somewhat like bingo, bolita consists of 100 numbered balls, and players would bet on which number would be called. Despite being illegal, bolita had a huge following in the early twentieth century.

A decade later, notorious organized crime bosses Meyer Lansky and Al Capone often spent time in Florida hangouts. Tampa became so overrun with illegal gambling and the accompanying gangland-style murders that many folks had dubbed the city “Little Chicago.” Payoffs to police by crime bosses of speakeasies and casinos were commonplace.

Horse-racing took hold in the Sunshine State in the 1920s with the construction and opening of Hialeah Park[6]. Park founders James Bright and Glenn Curtis built the park as part of a project that included public buildings and a racetrack. Two years later, the first pari-mutuel greyhound racing facility in the United States opened at Hialeah, and the Miami Kennel Club was founded. Then in 1924, the Miami Jockey Club was formed and fully opened a year later at Hialeah Park. After Hialeah suffered severe damage from a hurricane in 1926, the park changed ownership in 1930, then enjoyed a glorious 30-year stretch that included such standout race horses as Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Citation, Nashua, and Bold Ruler. Hialeah Park changed ownership twice in the 1970s, and the park ran strong for three more decades until 2001, when Hialeah Park halted horse racing because of a change in state law that forbade the park from having exclusive racing dates from two competing racing venues.[7]

The state of Florida legalized slot machines in 1935 as a way of raising additional revenue in the wake of the Great Depression, but the public’s outrage was intense. So serious, in fact, that the Crime Commission of Greater Miami was formed with the aim of driving syndicate-controlled gambling out of Florida. But in the 1960s, lawmakers realized that although racing and slots were legal in Florida, it was the unregulated forms of gambling that were really paying off, making as much if not more than races. From there, gambling proponents tried in 1975, 1978, 1986 and 1994, to bring casinos to the Sunshine State, but all to no avail. The Florida legislature legalized bingo in 1971 and put a $100 limit on winnings. Once bingo was legalized, the Seminole Tribe of Florida went from a 1,200-seat bingo hall in the 70s to “two decades of lawsuits that would lay the groundwork for legalized Indian gambling in the United States.”

In 2004, the legalization of slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties passed by 50.8 percent of the vote, paving the way for gambling in Florida as we know it today. The tribal casinos took this opportunity to successfully fight to have Class III slot machines legalized, and with it they were granted the right to offer other Class III table games in their casinos as well. Today the Seminole Tribe of Florida owns seven of the eight tribal casinos in Florida. The eighth is owned by the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

Gambling Future Looking Sunny In Sunshine State

Florida’s colorful history of gambling in many forms makes its recent legislative efforts to legalize online gambling within its borders a no-brainer. However, like a handful of other states considering similar legislation, Florida’s lawmakers won’t make a move to add online gambling regulations during the 2018 legislative session. It is clear that most lawmakers understand the potential revenue the state stands to gain by allowing racing venues and jai-alai frontons to install portals to approved online poker rooms.

Keep in mind that when Rep. Abruzzo proposed online gambling legislation in early 2011, it was several months prior to the Black Friday indictments of online poker sites PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker that changed the online poker industry. His proposed bill was also nearly one year prior to the U.S. Department of Justice ruling that found the 1961 Wire Act as being applicable only to sports betting and not Internet poker and lotteries. So a lot has changed since Abruzzo’s initial online gambling proposal, namely, that online poker and gambling legalization by individual states is no longer hampered by federal law.

When legislators meet in Tallahassee for the start of the 2018 session, they are certain to revisit the bill proposing three mega-casino resorts to be constructed in South Florida. The odds are also good that Abruzzo’s 2011 online gambling bill, or some form of it, will also be considered to bring additional revenue to the state. And in light of the events of the past year or so that has found several states looking at online poker and gambling bills, don’t be surprised if Florida scraps the poker portal idea and comes up with an online poker scheme similar to the one now in the works in Nevada.


[1] Joe Abruzzo proposes Florida State online gambling bill by the Daytona News Journal
[2] PPA comment on rejection of Florida online gambling bill by the Sun Sentinel
[3] Florida lawmakers remove casino bill – New York Times
[4] The history of gambling in Florida by the Tampa Bay Times
[5] Bolita by
[6] Hialeah Park Wiki –
[7] The history of Hialeah Park – by