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Senate, House split over whether to regulate or ban internet cafes

A Senate Committee Thursday voted to regulate Internet Cafes instead of shutting them down.  James Call reports the move dealt a blow to critics of the so-called sweepstakes operations who say they are nothing more than strip-plaza casinos.

At the intersection of Florida laws governing slot machines and sweepstakes promotions is a gray area in which more than a thousand Internet Cafes have sprouted. Operators say when customers buy Internet time they enter a sweepstakes, a game of chance. Sweepstakes are legal in Florida.  However, café opponents say the only difference between these sweepstakes operations and a slot machine is where the money is paid and the winnings are collected. One has to be able to insert something into a machine for it to be a slot. At a café one pays a cashier to activate a video monitor.

No Florida appellate court has ruled on the issue. There have been three  circuit court cases resulting in one
not guilty verdict and two dismissed cases. Joe Cocchiarella is with the Orange County’s state attorney office which has worked to shut down the cafes.

"A court in Alabama examined a similar situation and says just because you take the components an and separate them by wires and put them in different parts of the room doesn’t mean you still doesn’t have a slot machine. Here the money may not be spent at a terminal but the ones we investigated, I can’t speak for the other 1,000, you went to the front desk and the cashier gave you money, cash. So it’s a factual dispute."

An Alabama court ruling did not carry much weight with the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. Senators voted 8-1 to regulate the cafes and allow them to stay in business. Miami Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is sponsoring the measure.

"Number one you want to recognize reality. Internet cafes exist. They’ve existed for awhile. And so we have to deal with that."

Exact numbers are hard to find but everyone seems to agree that there are between a 1000 and 1400 Internet Cafes operating in strip plazas and storefronts throughout the state. A Florida State University study found that the cafes employ between four- thousand to 13,000 people and generate between $250 and $750 million annually.

It concluded the cafes have a positive fiscal impact for the state.  Julie Slattery says she has operated two cafes in Melbourne for five years. Her cafes are in Senator Thad Altman’s district. Here Altman questions her about the operation.

Altman: "Have you ever had, a drug bust at your facility?"

Slattery: "We have never had one eensy teensy bit of crime. We’ve had police officers play and come in and enjoy our establishments, and lots of retired ones."

Altman: "No drug busts, no prostitution arrests, no fights, because I heard earlier some reference to that. What
would you say the average age of your clients is?

Slattery: "On average 50, 55.  All the way from younger ones to 85 90 years old."

Slattery conceded to the committee that not all Internet Cafes are equal. She said if they are regulated then the state can address the concerns critics have.  Spokespeople for the Sheriff’s association and the Attorney General support a ban. Café owners, vendors and charitable organizations that receive money from the sweepstakes support regulations. Senator Altman explains why he supports allowing the cafes to continue to operate.

"From a government point of view that we are very careful not to use the heavy arm of government to impede activities law abiding citizens engage in. If there is a problem incrementally engage in the process and if that doesn’t solve the problem than we may  be able to do more."

Spokespeople for the Sheriff’s association and the Attorney General’s office want the café’s closed. A House Committee has voted to ban them. And Governor Rick Scott has called for them to be shut down. Senator de la Portilla says he understands forces are gathering to impose a prohibition but says he is optimistic that his proposal to regulate the cafes will move forward.

"Well you know the governor has changed his mind on a couple of things like the pill mills for example. So again, this is the beginning of the process and I think as the process moves forward there will be continue
discussion and the governor or a legislator can change their mind on the issue it’s a process."

 Longwood Representative Scott Plakon is sponsoring the House measure to close the cafes. However he says it is too early in the session to make any predictions about whether the Legislature will regulate or prohibit Internet Cafes.