Seniors, vets worry about Internet café ban
Published: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 8:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 18, 2013 at 8:08 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — As state lawmakers move quickly to banish Internet gambling cafes, they are beginning to hear from seniors, veterans and gaming center owners who are worried the ban may be going too far.
Linda Radsick, a worker at the Telesweeps Internet cafe in Clearwater, was in the audience that packed a Monday meeting of the Senate Gaming Committee, which endorsed the ban (SB 1030) in an 11-0 vote.
Radsick said if lawmakers have a problem with the Internet cafes — following the arrests of nearly 60 people involved with the Allied Veterans of the World cafes last week — they should impose stronger regulations to eliminate the problem cafes and not shut them all down.
"They're not taking into consideration the seniors who rely on it," Radsick said. "We have people who come in just to eat. They don't have hot meals."
She also said closing her cafe would result in five workers losing their jobs, including a single mother with three children. "What are they going to do?" she asked.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, one of the legislative experts on state gambling laws, said the bill was aimed at clarifying existing law "to match existing policy." He said state law prohibits gambling establishments — outside legalized horse and dog tracks and other pari-mutuel facilities — with some exceptions, although the exceptions do not include Internet cafes.
The cafes and other "gray area" gaming centers are trying to operate under exceptions created for charity groups, such as churches, promotional games linked with food establishments like Chuck E. Cheese or McDonald's and sweepstakes games that involved a player's skills.
The Senate bill tightens the definition of those exceptions, with lawmakers saying they do not intend to ban legitimate charities, Chuck E. Cheese or arcades where small prizes are awarded players.
The provisions are not meant to enable "the establishment of ongoing gaming enterprises," said Galvano, who helped write the state's gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 2010.
Statewide, more than 1,000 of the Internet cafes are estimated to have opened over the past several years, despite some efforts by communities and law enforcement to shut them down.
Lawmakers have previously considered bills to ban or regulate them, but the measures have failed. The criminal investigation into Allied Veterans, which also prompted the sudden resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, moved legislators to clarify the state's gambling laws, making it clear what is legal activity and what is illegal, said Senate Gaming Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples.
Allied Veterans, which billed itself as a charitable organization, was accused of raising some $300 million but giving less than 2 percent to veterans. Carroll has not been charged in the investigation.
Richter said the cafes and other games centers have "wiggled their way" through loopholes in the state law, acting as gambling establishments while insisting they are not.
"If it's a duck, we're calling it duck," Richter said. "It's illegal."
Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who originally filed legislation calling for the regulation of the cafes, said the spread of the gambling activity has necessitated a quicker reaction from the Legislature.
"We cannot wait another year," Thrasher said. "I think we need an outright ban."
Yet a number of groups voiced concern Monday over the actions of the Senate and House, where a committee endorsed an Internet cafe ban last week that could be voted on by the full House this week.
Michael McDaniel, representing the American Legion organization in Florida, said his members have received confusing information about games at their outlets for veterans. "It's about as clear as mud," said McDaniel, who added his organization is waiting for the state to draw the line between right-and-wrong activity.
But he also said the veterans groups rely on income from their games to help their members. If that ability is removed, "it's going to put a big hurt on what we do as an organization," he said.
The Rev. Bob Caudill, a Fort Lauderdale priest, said the games allow his church's soup kitchen to serve about 300 people breakfast and dinner. It also helps the church generate funds for clothes, medicine and housing for needy individuals and families.
"We do need the money that comes in from these game operations," Caudill said, noting his soup kitchen doesn't get any money from the state.
He also suggested lawmakers look at imposing tougher regulations to eliminate groups like Allied Veterans "and not throw out everyone else."
"Have some mercy and compassion," he said.
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