Internet cafe crackdown bill clears committee

Jan 17, 2012

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would outlaw gambling in so called “Internet Cafes.” The businesses have been popping up in strip malls, across from Laundromats and next to grocery stores.  But Regan McCarthy reports  they’re not really a place to get coffee. They’re actually a business with a certain kind of gambling that some legislators say sneaks through a loophole in the state’s laws.

Representative Scott Plakon, a Republican from Longwood is sponsoring a bill to outlaw the kind gambling done in Internet cafes. He says the cafes aren’t what they sound like and are actually miniature gaming halls with video gambling machines. Although he says café supporters would probably argue against that description.

“They’re probably going to say also that when people go into these more than 1,000 locations in the state that they’re just sending an e-mail to their grandmother or checking their facebook. That is not what’s happening in these locations. It is gambling in every sense of the word. They’re going to say that these are just like scratch-off tickets….I’ve never heard of anybody getting addicted to McDonalds scratch off tickets, for example.”

Plakon says the cafes are aimed at low income individuals who can least afford to lose money through addictive behavior. And he says the cafes also attract crime. He gives the example of an internet café in Apopka that was robbed at gun point.

“There was about 35 people in the location and the bad guys came in, shot the place up, thank god for the efforts of one heroic security guard who got in a shootout with them.”

One robber was shot and the sheriff’s office was later able to catch the thieves, but Plakon says what’s telling is that a u-tube video of the robbery shows one person who had taken cover under a desk returning to gamble just moments after the robbers leave.

“That person is so addicted to that activity that there’s a guy on his way to dead outside and within seconds he gets up and starts gambling again.”

April Kirshman is with the Seminole County Sheriff’s office. She says people in her community call her office frequently to complain about the cafes.

“Tenants like lifestyle fitness says our clients that come don’t feel safe because there’s people loitering in the parking lot and there’s people pandering for money and it makes us feel unsafe and our business is going down.”

Kirshman, who is also with the Florida Sheriff’s Association, says the manager of one cafe was arrested on drug charges and she says there have been reports of money laundering associated with the industry.

But some lawmakers raised concerns about the possible loss of jobs. Representative Joseph Abruzzo, a Democrat from Wellington says he’s worried about casting a vote that could take away a person’s livlihood.

There are thousands, possibly tens of thousands of jobs all at risk of shutting down with one swipe.”

But Representative Jason Brodeur, a Republican from Sanford, says maintaining bad public policy in favor of jobs isn’t the way to go.

“We could sit up here and argue whether or not it’s good to give drivers licenses to 5-year old. Think of how many people would be employed. Training children to drive, how many cars we would sell, it’s a good jobs argument. Doesn’t make a good public policy And that’s what I think is the heart of the issues is regardless of what we’re talking about in terms of jobs, it’s bad public policy.”

Other lawmakers suggested regulation as a compromise, but Plakon says that’s not enough. He says regulating internet cafes would essentially be granting amnesty to the industry.

A regulation bill would be the effect of us authorizing 1-thousand gambling locations in this state.”

The measure passed through the House committee.  A similar bill in the Senate is expected to come up for a committee vote later in the week.