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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

House panel passes bill to clarify law to outlaw gambling machines



The online slot machines operated by strip mall Internet cafes, adult arcades and Miami-based maquinitas willl be officially outlawed under a bill that passed the House Select Committee on Gaming Friday.

In a 15-1 vote, the House Select Committee passed the bill (HB 155) just days after state and federal authorities arrested 57 individuals with ties to a purported veterans charity organization that collected almost $300 million from illegal gambling operations at 49 Internet cafes in Florida.Only about $6 million was given to veteran groups, according to investigators.

The House measure, by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, would take effect upon becoming law and, sponsors say and will not interfere with existing investigations. It clarifies that the Web-based gambling devices are illegal because they are games of chance, not games of skill as they are promoted to be.

Legislative leaders expect it to reach the governor's desk by the end of the month.

The bill was supported by an unusual coalition that included the Florida Chamber, the pari-mutuel industry, the greyhound racing association and the Florida Baptist Convention. Notably abset were any lobbyists or advocates for the Internet Cafe industry, who previously had aggressively sought to regulate the games, not ban them.

The bill passed with only one no vote, Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, who said the state should be regulating, not outlawing the games. He said the issue was being rushed by House leaders as a "knee-jerk reaction" to the state and federal investigation into Allied Veterans and its affiliates that landed 57 arrests and prompted the state Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to resign.

The fall of the fast-climbing industry is happening with mercurial speed in Florida. Some operators of the estimated $1 billion enterprise are already shut down. Now, the legal clarification comes five years after Rep. Bill Galvano, now a state senator from Bradenton, first suggested making the change as he negotiated the compact. Resistance, he said, began with former Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and wove its way through the Legislature.

Police estimate that Allied Veterans and its operators steered $2 million in campaign contributions to politicians throughout the state. Division of Elections records show that as much as $1 million more was spent by operators of other Internet cafe franchises and chains not affiliated with Allied Veterans.

Trujillo had filed his bill to outlaw the games before the state and federal "Reveal the Deal" investigation was announced this week. A similar bill was passed by the Florida House last year but it failed in the Senate, where the prevailing support was for measures to regulate, not ban the machines.

In the wake of the arrests, however, the Senate has announced this week that it will take up a bill on Monday to also ban the machines.

Waldman complained that the House bill went beyond banning the Internet cafes and instead attempted to crack down on the adult arcades and maquintas -- major policy shifts he said that deserved a more delibertive hearing than the rush to judgment they were being asked to make, he said.

"This is nothing more than what we do in the Florida House -- a knee jerk reaction to what took place,'' he said. "The fact is, nothing that we do today will affect those prosecutoions from those arrests three days ago. If it was illegal before it’s still illegal." But Trujillo said the legislation was needed because these cases are "extremely difficult to prosecute and extremely costly...The operators and promoters are very creative and they basically skirted around state law and it comes down to a battle of experts. And the experts have to decide are these games of skill or games of chance." 

[Last modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 11:39am]


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