WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The push to expand gambling in Florida has received an extra shove from the U.S. Department of Justice's decision to allow online sales of lottery tickets -- a venture that some states are considering to ease deficits.
In a 13-page opinion released in September but made public last week, the department's legal counsel found that proposals by New York and Illinois to sell lottery tickets online to adults within their states did not violate the 1961 Wire Act, which bans wagers made via telecommunication systems that cross state and national borders.
Although Florida has no immediate plans for online ticket sales, some supporters say that with the move by the Department of Justice, the writing is on the wall.
''I had a strong feeling that this day would come," said Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, who for several years has unsuccessfully pushed for online poker. "It's very important to me that we have Internet gaming."
Gov. Rick Scott recently said he wants to increase ticket sales to allow a $1 billion increase in the state's education budget. The lottery brought in about $4 billion last year. About 98 percent goes for education, as required by the voter-approved amendment that created it in 1986.
Scott, though he has not taken a position on online sales, has endorsed distributing more lottery-ticket vending machines and a change in state law to let the Florida Lottery install so-called full service machines that sell both scratch-off tickets and online games such as Powerball.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are poised to act on a variety of gambling initiatives, including bills that could allow three mega-casinos in South Florida, the creation of a state Gaming Commission and Department of Gaming Control and a scratch-off game to fund breast cancer research and victim services.
Online gambling initiatives in Florida face an additional challenge: Compliance with the compact the state has with the Seminole Tribe for gambling rights. Abruzzo, who participated in drafting the compact, said online sales would not violate the compact. However, it is not known whether the Seminoles would offer their own Internet gambling.
Abruzzo said he will not push for online ticket sales for other Florida Lottery games now but will file an amendment to an existing gambling bill that would allow the Florida Lottery to offer online poker. Abruzzo's state-run poker game would protect players from going bust by putting limits on the number of bets and the amount that a player could wager.
''The difference between online lottery and online poker is that poker is taking place anyway," Abruzzo said. "We're harnessing in what's already taking place. With the major offshore operators being shut down, we should be the only legal game in town."
Several states, including Minnesota, New York, North Dakota and New Hampshire, offer online subscriptions to a limited number of their lottery games. Players must be at least 18 and have an in-state address.
The proposal for online ticket sales in Florida got a boost in March, when the legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Accountability released a report that estimated annual online subscription sales could generate $10 million for education.
The Florida Lottery, which has not taken a position on online ticket sales, is analyzing the department's legal opinion, according to a spokesperson.
A spokeswoman for Scott said the governor is undecided on the issue of internet ticket sales. However, Scott's proposed budget authorizes the Florida Lottery to add 350 additional terminals, 500 Instant Ticket Vending Machines and 350 full service vending machines to its distribution network.
The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling is taking no position on Internet gambling. However, the risk for trouble is much greater when players can wager with their credit card -- as would be required with online gambling -- rather than paying cash, said Brian Kongsvik, the council's help-line director. Online gambling would expand the lottery's market to especially vulnerable populations such as the homebound and disabled.
''It is important for us to state the facts," Kongsvik said. "Anytime you have an expansion and make it more available and accessible and acceptable, it leads to increased vulnerability."
Christine Stapleton writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: christine(underscore)stapleton(at)pbpost.com.
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