Florida’s House and Senate gaming committees weren’t expected to bring any significant gambling legislation forward this session. But following charges filed against an Internet sweepstakes café operator, the tone in the legislature has changed.
Internet cafes are small store fronts, typically found in strip malls, that sell internet time to patrons who use that time to play slot machine like games to win cash or prizes. And opponents say they’re illegal gambling centers that have slipped through a loophole. Senator Garrett Richter, a Republican from Naples, is the chair of the Senate Gaming Committee.
“Depending on who or when you ask, they claim they fit within the definition of charitable raffles or bingo such as what is offered by veterans or religious groups or the definition of sweepstakes promotions, incidental to the sale of consumer products like hamburgers or soft drinks,” Richter said.
And Internet Cafes have gotten a bad reputation lately for preying on the elderly or being associated with crime. Senator Andy Gardiner, a Republican from Orlando said that’s a concern for him.
“In Apopka, about two years ago there was an individual that was actually killed at one of these locations—killed, but we still didn’t have the evidence necessary to act,” Gardiner said.
But Senator John Thrasher, a Republican from St. Augustine, said after officials announced racketeering charges against Internet café operator Allied Veterans of the World, it became clear the legislature had to make a move.
“We cannot wait another years. And, instead of a moratorium, which is the bill that I had originally introduced to stop what I believed was a proliferation of Internet cafes, I believe we need an outright ban,” Thrasher said.
A House committee passed a measure to ban Internet cafes last week, but was met with criticism that lawmakers were rushing the legislation in a knee jerk reaction. Thrasher said the Senate is not rushing its plan.
“I know that the House has already acted. I’m told, but I’m not absolutely sure that they make take up the bill that they passed last Friday on the House floor this week. The Florida Senate won’t do that. We have scheduled time on the floor tomorrow. It will not include this bill. It will give us a week or perhaps even longer for further adjustments that may need to be made if we pass this bill today,” Thrasher said.
And Senator Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, shared concerns raised by many public commenters about what the measure might mean for electronic games played at children’s or senior arcades. He says he wants to be sure places like Chuck E Cheese, that use electronic games and give out prizes for legitimate purposes, won’t be affected by the bill.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve had my kids in Chuck E Cheese and we used to get those tickets out of the machines, and get those little prizes and it was a big day in the Latvala household when we could do that," Latvala said.
Thrasher, the bill’s sponsor says his intention is to ensure games at children’s arcades will not be affected by the bill. And Committee Chair Richter agreed. He also said the committee will be taking another look at gaming as a whole next year.
“This process today, and what we expect to work collaboratively with the House, does not slow down and will not divert our attention from conducting a comprehensive analysis of gaming for the entire state of Florida. There are a number of moving parts and we heard from these businesses about gaming and how it’s regulated,” Richter said.
The Senate measure passed out of its first committee unanimously. The House bill passed out of a committee last week with just one vote against it.