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Lawmakers Game For Arcades

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Brittany Bush Bollay
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When lawmakers created new rules to crack down on illegal gaming operations, such as Internet cafes, they also created a legal grey area for arcades. Now lawmakers are looking to clear that up through legislation clarifying what types of electronic games are allowed.

Fire Betty’s is a new barcade—a combination of a bar and arcade in Tallahassee. It’s filled with games like pinball, skeeball and air hockey.  Derek Hart opened the place just a few months ago.

Hart says he opened Fire Betty’s as a place for people to hang out and have fun, no matter who they are.

“You can be socially awkward. You can be a nerd and you can come in here and be around people having fun and you can have a beer and play pinball all night. We have guys that come in here and play pinball all night," Hart says.

But he says before the barcade opened, he had no idea how many rules and regulations he’d face. Most of Hart’s games are played just for fun. But he did have one game customers could play for prizes.

But it posed a risk. Hart says lawyers and local lobbyists flagged the game as a potential violation of state law.

“And it was so many that we started looking into it, and with the way the law is right now, it is illegal. And because we’re so heavily regulated and we are a new business, we didn’t want to mess with that and so we took the machine out yesterday,” Hart says.

Meanwhile in the Florida House Rep. Jay Trumbull (R-Panama City) has a bill that makes room for games like the one Hart just removed.

“It specifically talks to family amusement games, which are games of skill not chance, which is what gambling is associated with,” Trumbull says.

Trumbull’s bill creates a carve out for claw machines and allows businesses to give out prizes for skill based  games as long as the prizes are on site and fall under a price cap included in the bill. But Michael Wolf, the lawyer for the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association says it’s impractical to keep all prizes on site. And he says the skills requirement is unreasonable.

“Because under that standard, amusement arcades cannot exist. Machines that don’t have some element of chance, where a player can win every time by skill, as you can imagine, that's going to put the arcades out of business eventually," Wolf says. "There has to be some form of chance involved in any game otherwise it’s not a game.”

Wolf says the measure also puts Bingo operations at risk. He says many Bingo halls now use electronic Bingo cards, but he says this bill would outlaw that. And that’s something lawmakers like Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven) agree the legislature doesn’t want to do.

“But that’s something that we could just fix with some language, because we all know how important Bingo is to our constituents and we’re not going to do anything to impact Bingo,” Wood says.

The measure passed out of the House Regulatory Affairs committee Wednesday, with lawmakers warning they’d expect to see that Bingo issue addressed before it reaches the floor. Meanwhile, a similar bill is moving through the Senate.