In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Loopholes loom for bill allowing family arcade games

Gambling operations have long festered in loopholes that Florida abides in its gaming laws, like weeds growing out of cracks in a sidewalk.

Last week, Marc Dunbar, the Legislature’s oft-called expert witness in gambling matters, told the Senate Gaming Committee that a new bill designed to legalize “family” arcade games was laden with the very kind of loopholes that have historically given traction to legally suspect gambling operations in Florida.

The bill supposedly would allow the revival of those innocent senior citizen arcades caught in last year’s crackdown on storefront casinos — operations that had flourished in the lazy inexactitudes of Florida law.

Of course, there was considerable debate about the supposed innocence of the senior arcades, which, with their long rows of burping slot machine-like gaming terminals, operated like low-rent gambling dens.

But senators paid no mind to Dunbar, an adjunct professor at Florida State University who teaches gaming law, and passed the arcade bill out of committee. They ignored his warning that the bill’s sloppy wording would abet an outbreak of the strip mall casinos that they had outlawed a year ago.

The 2013 law was passed after revelations about a fake veterans charity running a $300 million gambling arcade racket in Florida, leading to the arrest of 57 people and the resignation of Florida’s lieutenant governor. Except the new law seems to have its own lucrative loopholes.

Apparently the Legislature’s reluctance to establish a statewide gambling regulator has left enforcement of the law to the vagaries of local law enforcement. About 60 of these outlawed storefront arcades have opened, or reopened, in the Jacksonville area. Another cluster has renewed operations in Southwest Florida. And Hialeah police indicated last year that they had no intention of shutting down the city’s notorious maquinita casinos.

Of course, loopholes have long been the essence of Florida gambling enterprises. The storefront casino industry capitalized on a poorly written law meant to allow children’s coin games — the so-called Chuck E. Cheese exemption.

The Seminole tribe’s multibillion-dollar casinos resulted from exploitation of a state law allowing bingo back in 1979. Florida may have limited bingo wagering for charitable purposes only, no more than twice a week, with a maximum pot of $100, but that provided the opening Seminoles needed to eventually open seven casinos in Florida.

Back in the 1990s, loopholes allowed dozens of unregulated gambling boats, running cruises-to-nowhere, to dock at Florida ports.

Loopholes, and a lack of regulatory fervor, have allowed parimutuels to stage faux racing and jai-alai events as an excuse to run poker rooms and slot machine racinos. So we’ve horse tracks staging barrel races. We’ve got harness tracks that have all but eliminated the grandstand. We’ve got a fronton in Hamilton offering 100 jai-alai nights a year featuring only a four-person roster of players.

A more competitive parimutuel would be a race staged among gaming lobbyists and lawyers, betting on who would be first to squeeze their clients through this latest looming, lucrative loophole.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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