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Friday, December 15, 2017

The red-light district that masquerades as the Capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla., is bustling as always with the Legislature in session.

It’s the annual festival of whores, when many Florida lawmakers sell out and roll over for high-rolling special interests, if the price is right. And the price is seldom wrong.

Buying one legislator doesn’t cost that much, but getting an entire bill passed to benefit your industry requires buying (or at least leasing) a bunch of them, which adds up to big bucks.

As an example, fantasy sports companies have spent more than $220,000 to recruit top Florida legislators on behalf of FanDuel, DraftKings and other daily fantasy leagues. These are online gambling operations that desperately don’t want to be regulated like gambling operations.

The companies insist their pay-to-play games reward skill over chance, but that’s a joke. Putting down cash on a quarterback’s Sunday performance is no different than betting on a race horse or a greyhound.

New York is seeking to ban fantasy sports companies from that state because the attorney general says they violate the gaming laws. Nevada, the galactic mecca of gambling, says that FanDuel and DraftKings promote wagering, plain and simple. The attorney general of Texas calls it “prohibited gambling.”

Florida, of course, remains wide open for business. No matter how you feel about online betting, the strategy of the competing companies offers a prime lesson on how to game a polluted political process.

Sen. Joe Negron, who’s next in line to be Senate president, is pushing a law that the daily fantasy sports sites have been fantasizing about. It legalizes play, and essentially grants exemption from gaming laws.

Online companies would pay $500,000 up front to operate in Florida, and $100,000 annually to renew their licenses. Minors would be barred from playing, though the companies wouldn’t be regulated like casinos or pari-mutuels. There would be no criminal penalties for violations.

By now you’ve already guessed that Negron is taking money from the industry. A political action committee connected to the Stuart Republican received $10,000 from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association in September.

Another productive $10,000 donation went to Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach. He is dutifully cheerleading a similar bill through the state House, piously declaring, “Government should have little to no involvement in the recreational daily lives of Floridians.”

Does that mean Gaetz also supports legalizing marijuana, which millions of Floridians use recreationally? Nope. Evidently the pot growers haven’t written him a big enough check.

Fantasy sports operators have laid down big bets on key lawmakers besides Gaetz and Negron. Their lobby group donated $30,000 to a political committee run by Rep. Richard Corcoran, the House appropriations chairman and future speaker of the House.

The current Speaker, Steve Crisafulli, has a PAC that took at least $10,000 from the industry. So did a committee associated with Senate Appropriations chairman Tom Lee. GOP leaders aren’t the only ones with their palms out. Fantasy sports lobbyists also gave $25,000 to the Florida Democratic Party. (It was just a gesture of politeness, since the Democrats are powerless in the Legislature.)

Not all lawmakers are up for grabs. After Nevada ruled that sites such as DraftKings promote gambling, Florida’s Senate majority leader, Bill Galvano, actually gave back $15,000 he’d received from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

This defies all odds, but it really happened. Spreading tons of money around usually works wonders. Just ask the Seminoles.

In 2013, the tribe forked out $500,000 to Let’s Get to Work, Gov. Rick Scott’s political action committee. Scott recently signed a new gambling compact that would give the tribe’s seven casinos exclusive rights to roulette, craps and blackjack. In return, the state would be guaranteed at least $3 billion from profit-sharing over seven years, beginning in 2017.

The Scott deal, a potential windfall for the Seminoles, has yet to be approved by the Legislature. We all know what that means: Checks are flying.

The tribe opposes legalizing fantasy sports sites, which means lawmakers can shake big donations from both sides. Already the Seminoles have distributed more than $2 million to at least 90 state politicians (mostly Republicans), several political action committees and both major parties.

This is how it gets done in American politics — you pay to play. It’s as true in Tallahassee as it is in any brothel.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

Photo: A FanDuel logo is displayed on a board inside of the DFS Players Conference in New York November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson