Florida legislators approved a legislative package Wednesday that would expand gambling in the state and that sets the stage for former president Donald Trump to pursue a casino license at his Doral golf resort.
The legislation includes a new 30-year compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, negotiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican and Trump ally. The compact includes a provision barring the tribe from interfering should the state issue a gambling license to a facility more than 15 miles “in a straight line” from the tribe’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.
Trump’s Doral resort — which he purchased in 2012, then spent an estimated $250 million renovating — is slightly more than 15 miles away.
Trump’s son Eric Trump, who has managed the company since Trump entered office in 2017, told The Washington Post in March that Doral would be a natural fit for a casino.
“Many people consider Trump Doral to be unmatched from a gaming perspective — at 700 acres, properties just don’t exist of that size and quality in South Florida, let alone in the heart of Miami,” Eric Trump said in an email. He did not respond to a request for comment this week.
Opponents of the legislation, which would increase sports and online gambling in Florida, called the compact too deferential to Trump’s Doral resort and another prospective casino site, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel, owned by developer Jeffrey Soffer. The tribe’s opposition has been a major obstacle to efforts to establish new casinos.
Rep. Michael Grieco, a Democrat whose district includes Miami Beach, said he does not know who put the 15-mile language into the compact.
“That line, I don’t know where it came from, but I knew why it’s there,” Grieco said. “It removes one of the major hurdles that someone would need to jump in order to make a gaming license in Florida portable, and specifically for two or three people, including the owner of the Fontainebleau and our 45th president.”
“After today, we will be one step closer to gaming portability, and to both Donald Trump and others having casinos in Dade County,” he added.
The lone senate Republican to oppose the measure, Sen. Jeff Brandes said the “15 mile” language seems specifically directed to benefit Trump and the Fontainebleau, which is also just outside the 15-mile radius.
“The two most likely facilities would be Trump’s Doral and the Fontainebleau,” said Brandes, who represents Pinellas County on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A spokesman for Soffer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, whose district is in Miami-Dade County, said he’s tried to find out why a 15-mile buffer was included in the compact given that locations such as Disney World have much larger buffers between themselves and potential casino sites. He said he could not get a direct answer from the bills’ sponsors.
“I asked, ‘why is it 15 miles, which puts it in my district, where Disney gets a 100-mile buffer?’ ” Pizzo said. “I said, ‘if we made it 30 miles, would that be OK? Who came up with 15?’ I didn’t get an answer.”
An initial gambling proposal being floated by state GOP leaders in March would have gone even further, by making casino licenses transferrable to locations such Doral or the Fontainebleau. The idea was opposed by Miami Beach leaders and was never introduced.
It’s unclear whether Trump played a role in shaping the legislation, but the former president unexpectedly issued a statement last week endorsing the bill’s author, Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican, for state agriculture commissioner (even though Simpson has not announced a run for the position). A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The elder Trump famously built an Atlantic City, N.J., casino empire that ended in bankruptcies in the early 1990s. He then repeatedly advocated for the expansion of casinos in Florida before entering politics.
For years, Florida has limited gambling mostly to tribal casinos and horse-racing properties. Gambling interests in and outside of Florida have been trying to open the state up to more casinos and other games for years, and a political battle over whether to expand gambling occurs almost annually in the capital, Tallahassee.
The legislation’s passage, which came during a special session, marks a major achievement for DeSantis as the state looks to distinguish itself among locations trying to take advantage of growing online and sports gambling markets. Lawmakers and others said DeSantis pushed the sweeping overhaul of state gaming laws and personally negotiated with the Seminole Tribe.
John Stemberger, a conservative advocate who leads the Florida Family Policy Council, said he supports DeSantis on most issues but opposed the gambling expansion. His group held a protest rally in Tallahassee on Tuesday that attracted 250 people who heard from a bipartisan group of speakers opposing the bills.
Stemberger pointed to the financial support thrown at DeSantis and others by casino companies. Las Vegas casino magnate Shelden Adelson, who died in January, was a major financial donor to DeSantis’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, and he served on DeSantis’s campaign finance committee.
Adelson’s wife, Miriam, remains a DeSantis supporter. She and her late husband have been major donors to former president Trump’s campaigns.
“The gaming industry has thrown millions of dollars at the Republican Party for years, and there’s always this little dance where Republicans give them a kiss, but then say, ‘Sorry, we didn’t get it passed,’ ” Stemberger said. “But this year, the governor applied a lot of pressure. I know he’s called house members personally, even freshmen. He’s a very powerful figure, a very powerful governor.”
During Trump’s presidency, revenue at the heavily indebted Doral club dropped steeply, falling 44% last year as the pandemic struck, according to his government disclosure form. Without a casino or some other new attraction, it is not clear how the Trump Organization could turn the property around given the massive drop in business travel hotels face and the politicized nature of Trump’s brand.
The 74-page compact, negotiated between DeSantis and Marcellus Osceola, chairperson of the Seminole Tribal Council, provides the tribe with exclusive rights to a wide array of casino and sports gambling in exchange for billions of dollars in payments to the state. It passed the state Senate 38-1 Tuesday before passing the House 97-17 on Wednesday.
The legislation’s passage and expected signing by DeSantis probably sets up a legal battle over the state’s constitution. In the same year DeSantis was elected governor, 2018, nearly 70% of Florida voters approved an amendment saying voters, not legislators, need to approve any expansion of casino gambling in the state. DeSantis opposed the amendment.
During debate on the house floor before the vote Wednesday, Grieco said: “There is a former president who owns a property in Doral who would love to see a casino there. If you vote yes, you are voting to expand gambling in the state of Florida.”