Internet cafe ban clears house but looks dead in Senate

Mar 1, 2012

The battle over whether to regulate or decimate Internet cafes was raging in the Florida Legislature Thursday.  Tom Flanigan reports the House is betting elimination beats regulation.

After many committee meetings, debate and amendments, Republican Representative Scott Plakon of Longwood was bringing his bill to the House floor for the last time.

“This bill brings greater clarity to our laws as it relates to the storefront casinos/Internet sweepstakes centers that law enforcement from top to bottom has been asking us to clarify.”

But, Plakon told members, clarification is about all the legislature can reasonably provide…

“Even if we pass this bill, I do not expect them to shut this operation down because of continued crawling through loopholes in other states.”

Opponents of Internet cafes say exploiting legal loopholes was exactly how these places came to be in the first place.  Typically, operators of Internet cafes exchange the customer’s cash for access to specific web sites on the café’s computers.  These sites provide a sweepstakes experience that, if not out-and-out gambling, would seem very close to it.  There are prizes for winners and that also seems to meet the gaming criteria.  Ocala Republican Representative Dennis Baxley, took the “if it walks like a duck” tack:

“Members, we’ve got a cancer in Florida and it’s growing and it’s growing at a rapid rate.  If we would have dealt with this issue early on, when this very predatory practice found this niche, gray area to participate in, we could have nipped this off in the bud when there was 100 or 200 of them.”   

But the number of Internet Sweepstakes cafes in Florida today, Baxley thundered, was more than fifteen-hundred.  And they tended to set up shop in the low-income neighborhoods that can least afford them.

“Let me tell you, when people go in and lose their paycheck at the Internet café, then they can’t pay their child support, then they can’t pay their rent.  Then they’re embezzling at work because they’re trying to fill that black hole of gaming.”

But Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson told members much of her district is low-income.  Many residents there, she said, gamble without wrecking their lives and will gamble elsewhere if they can’t gamble close to home.

“They drive out of the community to the Hard Rock Café.  They get on buses and they go to Biloxi and other places in Mississippi to gamble.  So those are revenues that are going outside of the state of Florida.”
However, Fernandina Beach Republican Janet Adkins said the fact that Internet cafes offer gambling is the problem.

“I actually visited one of these places in my home town and I have to tell you, when I asked them to describe to me how does all of this work, the individual there was not able to describe it without using the work ‘gambling’ multiple times.  But she made it very clear, ‘But I’m not supposed to say this word.’”

House Minority Leader Ron Saunders of Tavernier urged his colleagues on both sides to keep two facts in mind….

“Fact number one: this is a well-intentioned, fatally-flawed bill that’s going to pass today.  Fact number two: this bill is stone-cold dead when it hits the senate.”

During his closing remarks, bill sponsor Plakon chided the Democrats for usually leaping to the defense of the poor and disadvantaged, except in this case…

“And they are targeting the poor and elderly.  And then I found out, which is the subject of another bill today, that these entities accept E.B.T. cards within their locations.  You can withdraw your welfare cash within one of these gambling halls and gamble it away before you get next door to the grocery store.”

Thus the Plakon bill came to a house vote:

“The clerk will lock the machine and announce the vote…72 yays, 43 nays, Mr. Speaker...So the bill passes.”

Meanwhile, the Senate Internet café bill, favoring regulation over elimination, appears dead in the water.