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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Seen from Tampa, Legislature's sweepstakes cafe debate is like watching 'Casablanca'



For some members of the Tampa City Council, having the Legislature debate a ban on Internet sweepstakes cafes is like watching Casablanca: state lawmakers seem shocked — shocked! — to find there is gambling going on.

“They knew there was gambling back there, there were lots of things that were happening, and (that’s) part  of the reason why they didn’t want to regulate these,”  said Mike Suarez, who made the analogy during the council’s discussion this week. "I don't put my trust in the Legislature when it comes to this particular issue."

That’s largely why the council went ahead with its own ban on new Internet sweepstakes cafes even though the Legislature is considering a total ban in the wake of an investigation that resulted in dozens of arrests and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.

And a couple of council members said they’re ready to go further and push for a complete ban in Tampa if the Legislature does not act or if Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the bill. (Hillsborough County already has such a ban, and it survived a legal challenge when the cafes that sued decided to close.)

“Immediately after their decision, if it’s not a total ban, then I’m going to be putting a motion before council for the city to come back with a total ban on all sweepstakes (cafes) within the city limits,” Council member Frank Reddick said.

“We don’t need these type of establishments in our city at all,” Council member Lisa Montelione said. “I support Mr. Reddick, and I’ll try and be patient. I’m not known for my patience.”

As part of its vote Thursday, the council also approved new regulations for the city’s 13 existing sweepstakes cafes, which let customers play computer games that mimic casino-style slot machines. While those cafes can continue to do business, they cannot:

• Move to a new location.

• Add machines.

• Allow minors.

• Serve alcohol (except for one cafe that already has a city permit to do so).

• Display signs suggesting there is gambling on the premises.

Violations can be prosecuted as misdemeanors punishable by up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. The city also can seek to impose code enforcement fines or go to court for an injunction to shut down a business using illegal sweepstakes machines.

The City Council has discussed what to do with cafes that make a living from sweepstakes games for more than a year. Yvonne Yolie Capin reminded her colleagues on Thursday: “I did bring this forth March 1 of 2012. I did initiate this.” (Her motion that day was for city staff to investigate the possibility of permitting the cafes as a “revenue stream.”) Capin added that  in the council’s follow-up discussion a month later, she made a motion to start blocking new cafes from opening while the city worked on regulations.  “That’s the reason we only have 13, as opposed to 23, 43, 53, 103.”

[Last modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 12:45pm]


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