TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Commission took the first step in banning Internet sweepstakes cafes Wednesday, saying it wanted regulations to ward off a potential influx of what some call illegal gambling.
But at the same time, the commission sought to exempt nonprofit organizations, including the politically influential Allied Veterans of the World, from a ban.
Recent crackdowns on Internet cafes in Pasco and Pinellas counties have raised concerns that the cafe owners will simply pick up and move the businesses to Hillsborough County.
Commissioners voted unanimously to direct county staff to draft an ordinance banning "simulated gambling devices," while also exempting nonprofit organizations, said County Administrator Mike Merrill.
In the coming weeks, the commission will review ordinance language and hold a public hearing. Interim County Attorney Don Odom said his office hasn't yet begun researching the issue and whether exempting some organizations is legally sound.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office pushed for a total ban. During a presentation at the meeting, the cafes were characterized as attracting violence and impeding public safety.
The cafes operate like this: Customers purchase Internet time that is used to access casino-style games. The games have a predetermined number of winners, owners say, unlike real slot machines that rely on chance.
Allied Veterans of the World has 35 Florida cafes and reports donating $6 million in charity, mostly to veterans.
Last year when she was a state representative, now-Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll filed a bill regulating certain electronic sweepstakes games.
The Florida Times-Union later reported that Carroll's public relations firm represented Allied Veterans of the World.
She then withdrew the bill and said a staff member had filed it without her approval.
Other bills filed in the Legislature also have been unsuccessful.
Enforcement varies. Some municipalities and law enforcement agencies allow sweepstakes cafes to operate, while others shut them down.
Commissioner Sandra Murman lobbied passionately for a total ban.
She frowned upon other options floated by the county staff, such as a putting a moratorium on new cafes or creating a mechanism to regulate them.
"If we do anything but ban, we are doing nothing," she said. "We are just delaying and allowing illegal gambling to exist in our community and to expand."
During public comments, representatives from Allied Veterans and other cafe owners argued their cafes should be allowed to remain. Some said the devices they use are akin to arcade games — not slot machines.
Commissioner Les Miller pushed for an exemption for organizations like the Allied Veterans, saying they give money to charity and reward winners in ways other than cash.
But he also acknowledged that such exemptions might not hold up in court.
"That's why I personally think we need to wait and see what the state is going to do," he said.
Tia Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.