House votes to ban Internet cafes
Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 8:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 8:37 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Following a gambling scandal that led to the arrest of nearly 50 people and the resignation of Florida's lieutenant governor, the state House voted 108-7 on Friday to ban Internet cafes and other similar gaming centers.
The quick passage came only 10 days after authorities outlined charges of money laundering and fraud involving the Allied Veterans of the World cafes, which have been accused of hauling in nearly $300 million but giving less than 2 percent to veterans groups.
Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans, resigned as the charges came to light, although she has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.
The House's rapid response is not a surprise given that the chamber has previously backed efforts to ban the cafes, which one House member described as a “cancer” of illegal gambling activity spreading across the state.
The House bill (HB 155), like a similar measure in the Senate, outlaws the Internet cafes as well as other “adult” arcades that use gaming machines, while clarifying exemptions for charity groups, such as churches, and promotional games linked with food establishments like Chuck E. Cheese or McDonald's.
If passed by the Senate and approved by Gov. Rick Scott as expected, the legislation would end a long-term debate over the gaming centers, which critics say have proliferated because of inconsistencies in state gambling laws — caused in part by technological advances in the gaming devices.
“This will be one of the largest contractions of gaming that we have experienced in our state certainly over the last 50 to 100 years,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, a former prosecutor who helped write the bill. “I think it sends a message to all the people who are out there stealing from seniors and exploiting the good name of veterans. We don't want you here in Florida.”
Only six Democrats opposed the bill, warning that lawmakers were overreaching in banning the cafes as well as other “senior” gaming centers that are popular in many regions of the state. Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, was the only Republican who voted against the measure.
Opponents said the ban should not include gaming centers that have not been accused of violating the law.
“Many seniors go there, and for $10 or $20 a day they sit with their friends and enjoy things. You're going to change all of that,” said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. “It's just not right to do on the emotions of this. You're harming the seniors.”
Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, another opponent, said lawmakers should look to regulate rather than ban the gaming centers.
“Why jump to making it illegal when the standard is simply to regulate it and tax it and have it be in the same world as other gambling,” Schwartz said. “I don't see why we have to jump to making it a crime.”
But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, described the gaming centers as “a phenomenon of really a cancer growing of neighborhood casinos popping up in every strip plaza and corner.”
The gaming centers — which have been estimated at about 1,000 across the state — present a “predatory environment,” particularly for Floridians who have a gambling problem, Baxley said. He said they “can't go to a grocery store or can't go to the bank without driving by one of these.”
“It would be derelict of us not to deal with that,” Baxley added.
A similar Senate measure was unanimously endorsed by the Gaming Committee earlier this week. It is now in the Rules Committee.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said his chamber would move “in a deliberate way” on the legislation. But he also predicted that lawmakers would act on the ban “well before the end of the session.”
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said, “Internet cafes have been a blight on Florida for many years” and he is “proud of the House for once again voting to shut them down.”
“With the recent crackdown on racketeering and fraud, I hope this will be the year when the House bill finally becomes the law of the land,” Weatherford said in a statement.