TAMPA — City Council members voted Thursday to prohibit new businesses from offering simulated gaming for the next six months, an effort designed to halt the spread of Internet sweepstakes cafes.
The temporary ban should allow the Florida Legislature time to regulate the casino-style sweepstakes games that popped up in Internet cafes in Tampa during the past five years, senior assistant city attorney Julia Mandell told the council.
The games are typically packaged to customers as a bonus when they buy Internet time.
Many such businesses closed soon after opening, leaving just five within the city limits on tax records.
These will be allowed to continue to operate under the ordinance.
Council member Lisa Montelione said she recently drove past two Internet cafes that sit across from each other along Busch Boulevard in strip malls.
"It was very disturbing," she said. "Not the kind of place I'd even want to go in and look around."
It's an industry that has boomed in Florida because of a legal gray area.
Several local governments, including Hillsborough County, have voted to prohibit the games.
But four sweepstakes companies sued the county, claiming the ban violates the cafes' First Amendment rights of free speech, unlawfully interferes with commerce and deprives them of equal protection and due process of law.
Mandell said the city's ruling on the games could be superseded by the outcome of a federal lawsuit, as well as laws that get passed during the 2013 legislative session.
She told the council she consulted with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation and was told: "They don't believe simulated gaming is legal. However, Florida has not made it clear."
At a prior council meeting, members suggested lumping Internet cafes into a new tax category to levy an additional fee. But the statute prohibits new business categories, said Sal Territo, chief assistant city attorney.
Council chairman Charlie Miranda cautioned members that they were making regulations for evolving games that could move offshore and be even more difficult to oversee.
"These things could get out of hand," he said.
Members will discuss the gaming devices further in a December workshop meeting.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.