Florida: Gambling Money Eyed for Environment

TALLAHASSEE — Legislative leaders pitched the use of gambling money to help pay for further expansion of a state wildlife corridor and other environmental projects as they kicked off the 2024 legislative session on Tuesday.

“Using these new revenues to acquire and manage conservation lands and invest in our clean water infrastructure will be a phenomenal return on investment for our state,” Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said in remarks to the Senate. “I hope the legislation will earn your support.”

The proposal (SB 1638), filed by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, would use an “indeterminate” amount of revenue available from a gambling deal, known as a “compact,” that Gov. Ron DeSantis reached with the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 2021. The money would be used to provide money for land acquisition and management.

The deal, in part, allowed Seminole Tribe to offer online sports betting statewide and provide games such as craps at its casinos. In exchange, the tribe pledged to pay $2.5 billion to the state over the first five years — and possibly billions of dollars more throughout the three-decade pact.

Legal battles over sports betting caused delays in carrying out the deal, but the tribe has recently moved forward.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, also backed the idea of using part of the money for conservation-related projects.

“Florida’s long-term infrastructure needs far exceed current funding,” Renner told House members. “In collaboration with our Senate partners, we will commit new funds from the Seminole compact to support Florida’s environmental infrastructure and protect our natural resources for the future.”

The Legislature has previously allocated $300 million a year for the wildlife corridor, envisioned as connecting 18 million acres from the Florida Keys to the Panhandle. About 8 million acres remain unsecured.

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, indicated she expected Democratic support if the money is used for protecting waterways and the environment.

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“We know that that gambling compact was a move that we made as a state in order to have more revenue to do some of the things we need as priorities,” Driskell said. “And protecting our environment is something our caucus would be glad to support.”

Passidomo and Renner spoke to their respective chambers before Gov. Ron DeSantis gave his annual State of the State address.

During his remarks, Renner cited priorities such as curtailing the use of social media by minors.

House and Senate bills (HB 1 and SB 1788), filed in recent days, would require social-media platforms to bar minors under 16 from creating social-media accounts and use “reasonable age verification” methods to check the ages of people when accounts are created.

During his speech, Renner pointed to what he said are negative health impacts that social media causes for youths.

“Children have always faced mean girls and boys, but social media has changed the game and causes unprecedented damage to children’s mental health. And here’s the truth — the social media companies know this. They also know that they designed social media to be as addictive as possible,” Renner said.

Speaking to the media following Renner’s remarks, Driskell cast doubt on whether the proposed social-media restrictions would be enforceable.

“My (Democratic) caucus and I, we believe that kids should be kids. We want to make sure that kids are protected,” Driskell told reporters. “But we also have to pass policy in a smart way. And if you look at House Bill 1, I’m not sure how they are going to enforce it. How are they going to force these companies to enact these age restrictions?”

“And why do we continue to intervene in a parent’s ability to raise their kid and their family how they want to?” Driskell added.

Lawmakers are also expected to make health-care changes during the session, with Renner pointing to a potential focus on mental health and bringing more transparency about health-care prices.

Renner also said that the House will back at least part of Passidomo’s “Live Healthy” health-care package, a major priority of the Senate president.

The Live Healthy proposal includes two bills sponsored by Sen. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart. Among other things, the proposal is intended to shift patients away from emergency rooms and expand medical residency programs. The $900 million plan has a focus on increasing the number of doctors, while encouraging technological innovation.

“We know hospital emergency rooms are the most expensive real estate in Florida,” Passidomo said. “Live Healthy will help create partnerships with other primary-care settings so care that is urgent, but not life threatening, can be handled in a more efficient and appropriate setting.”

Passidomo also used her remarks to the Senate to reiterate that expansion of Medicaid eligibility — an idea backed by many Democrats — is not on the table.

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“I want to be clear. I’m not going to spend the next 60 days relitigating Medicaid expansion. I understand the arguments both for and against. We have had the debate several times over the last decade,” Passidomo said. “Medicaid expansion is not going to happen. It is not a quick fix. It is not a panacea. In fact, if you cannot actually schedule an appointment with a health care provider, Medicaid expansion is nothing more than a false government promise.”

Passidomo added that the Senate on Wednesday will also take up bills aimed at “deregulation” of public schools (SB 7000, SB 7002 and SB 7004).

“With universal school choice now a reality for Florida families, reducing bureaucratic red tape will give neighborhood public schools that have served our communities and families for generations, a meaningful chance to compete right alongside other school-choice options,” Passidomo said.

A House measure (PCB EQS 24-01) aimed at reducing regulations for public schools will be considered Wednesday by the House Education Quality Subcommittee.

By Jim Turner and Ryan Dailey

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