INTERNET CAFES

Legislature sends Internet cafe ban to governor

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Slot machine look-alike games operated by Internet cafes, amusement arcades and Miami’s maquinitas will be officially outlawed under a bill passed Thursday by the Florida Senate.

Gov. Rick Scott will sign the bill into law, according to his spokeswoman, and it will immediately take effect, giving law enforcement the authority to shut down games that fit into the newly-crafted definitions.

“What we’re doing today is doing nothing more than giving law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need when they find illegal gambling to shut it down,’’ said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the sponsor of the Senate bill. The Senate voted 36-4 for HB 155, which had been overwhelmingly approved two weeks ago by the Florida House,108-7

The measure moved swiftly through Tallahassee in reaction to a federal and state investigation into Allied Veterans of the World three weeks ago that led to the arrests of 57 people charged with illegal gambling, money laundering and racketeering. The investigation prompted Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had once worked for Allied Veterans, to resign.

Police allege that that the sham veterans’ group made $300 million in profits by operating the illegal machines, but donated only about $6 million to charity. The investigation is continuing and law enforcement say they are targeting other operators.

Legislators collectively concluded that it was time to clarify an outdated and vague state law to target the illegal games that operated under loopholes. They insisted their goal was not to shut down senior amusements centers that operate legally.

“Nobody’s out there trying to put anybody out of business that’s doing legitimate business,’’ Thrasher said after the vote. “We’ve been talking about banning Internet cafes for a number of years. We just haven’t had either the political will or the ability to do it.’’

Adult arcade operators, who have stocked their centers with the computerized games that look and feel like slot-machines, warned that the new law will be the death knell for their amusement centers.

"Today’s action means amusement arcades, which have been operating legally for almost 30 years, will be forced to shut down,” said Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade Association, in a statement. She operates numerous senior arcades in South Florida, and sells machines to Internet cafes in Florida and other states.

“Seniors are being punished despite following the rules and providing a safe place for entertainment,” she said.

The Senate rejected three last-minute amendments by Miami Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Rene Garcia, both Miami Republicans, that would have shielded adult arcades from the new rules.

Diaz de la Portilla blasted the legislation even as he voted in favor of it, saying it was an over-reaction to the “mass hysteria” over the Allied Veterans investigation and will hurt adult arcades. “A good crisis shouldn’t go to waste but we’re basically lumping them in and impeding legal businesses,’’ he said.

But Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, said the bill was intended to clarify the law, not hurt law-abiding companies.

"This bill is not intended in any shape manner or form to shut down any legitimate business model,’’ said Richter, who said he will launch a statewide tour this summer to study gambling in Florida and make recommendations for updating the state’s gaming laws.

The bill clarifies that only skill-based games may be allowed at the amusements centers and truck stops that currently operate the slot-machines. It specifically bars any game that is “part of a scheme requiring consideration and awarding anything of value.” Prizes are limited to 75 cents. Gift cards and cards of cash equivalence are specifically banned.

The change effectively allows only pari-mutuels and the tribal casinos to operate casino-style games and bans any “casino-style game in which the outcome is determined by factors unpredicted by the players or games in which the player may not control the outcome of the game through skill.”

Voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Joe Abruzzo of West Palm Beach, Maria Sachs of Delray Beach, Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Jeremy Ring of Margate.

Ring, whose district includes many senior arcades, blamed the Internet cafe industry for opposing regulation in the past.

“The truth is, the industry has fought regulation and the industry has not been proactive to work with the Legislature,’’ Ring said. “I don’t think it had to come to this.”

Legislators also have quickly attempted to distance themselves from Allied Veterans, an organization that authorities say operated as a fake charity. Allied Vets and its affiliated Internet cafe owners and operators made more than $1.4 million in campaign contributions to state and federal candidates between 2008-2012, according to a Herald/Times analysis.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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