House moving toward ban on Internet cafes
Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 11:41 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 11:41 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House is poised to endorse a broad ban on Internet cafes, following a gambling scandal that led to 57 arrests and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll this week.
In a 15-1 vote Friday, the Florida House Select Committee on Gaming backed a bill (HB 155) banning the cafes as well as other related gaming activities, including adult arcades.
Rep. Carlos Trujillo said his bill (HB 155) is aimed at strengthening the state's gambling laws in the wake of the investigation of the Allied Veterans' cafes, which prosecutors said earned about $300 million from illegal gambling but only paid out about 2 percent of its proceeds to charity. Carroll, who has not been charged in the investigation, had worked for the company as a consultant in 2009 and 2010.
"These machines have always been illegal," said Trujillo, a Miami Republican.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, another strong opponent of the Internet cafes, said the full House may take up the bill as early as next week.
But the next significant step will come in the Senate, with that chamber's Committee on Gaming taking up its version of an Internet cafe ban on Monday.
Historically, the Senate has been more reluctant to aggressively go after the Internet cafes and other "gray area" gambling establishments. But Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said the Allied Veterans investigation has prompted the need for a stronger response, including a ban.
Last year, the House voted for a ban, while the issue never reached the Senate floor.
In the House committee on Friday, Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, cast the only vote against the legislation, saying lawmakers should take a more deliberative approach to the issue. He also questioned the need to pull the adult arcades into the ban.
"It seems like this is nothing but what we consistently seem to do around the Florida House, and that is a knee-jerk reaction to something that took place," Waldman said.
The legislation drew support from an array of groups, including some that traditionally oppose each other on other issues.
In this case, religious conservatives, who oppose gambling on moral grounds, were allied with lobbyists for Florida's jai alai frontons, dog and horse tracks, which see the Internet cafes and other game centers as unfair competition.
Gary Rutledge, a lobbyist representing pari-mutuel facilities, said the tracks and other facilities have "long believed" that the Internet cafes and other "unregulated and untaxed" gambling operations "have had an adverse impact on our industry, which is extremely highly taxed and regulated."
Bill Bunkley, a lobbyist representing a coalition of religious groups, including the Florida Baptist Convention, urged lawmakers to shut down "all Internet gambling cafes and any similar businesses," including the adult arcades. Bunkley said that if lawmakers only close the Internet cafes, the gambling activity could shift to the arcades.
Meanwhile, other businesses, such as McDonald's, Coca Cola and Dave and Buster's, all groups that run game and prize promotions along with their products, were looking closely at the "Chuck E. Cheese exemption" in the bill, which is designed to distinguish those activities from the illegal ones.
Trujillo said those promotions as well as charitable activities such as church bingo games and Little League raffles will be protected in the new law.
Friday's action by the House panel brought praise from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who said the "Internet casinos are a front for gambling and a breeding ground for other illegal activity."
"We must close the loophole in the law that has enabled them to invade our communities," Putnam said in a statement.
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