SPRING HILL — Several afternoons a week, you're likely to find Camille Kajenski with a can of Diet Sprite, punching buttons on a computer terminal at one of her favorite Internet cafes along U.S. 19.
But on Friday, the 72-year-old Kajenski, who walks with the aid of a cane, was among several dozen protesters who gathered for a pro-sweepstakes rally in front of Spinners Sweepstakes Cafe in Spring Hill.
Kajenski made no attempt to hide her anger over proposed state legislation that would outlaw what she called her favorite form of entertainment.
"It's nobody's business what I choose to do with my money," she said. "This is my fun. I'm not buying drugs, and I'm not hurting anybody. It's just stupid."
Spinners owner Terry Kasberg, who organized the rally, urged people in attendance to sign a petition protesting what he considers a knee-jerk reaction to a recent fraud investigation by state, federal and local law enforcement that led to the arrests last week of several officials from a purported veterans charity that ran dozens of sweepstakes cafes throughout the state.
Hours before the rally started, state House members voted overwhelmingly to do away with the cafes through a bill that, among other things, updates the definition of a slot machine and bans them under Florida law, even if they require an element of skill or are linked to other machines. The new law would also prohibit arcades from giving away gift cards and would limit any cash prizes to 75 cents per game. A similar bill likely will be voted on next week in the Senate.
Kasberg maintains that the activities inside his business have been legal for decades in Florida. He and other cafe owners said that the proposed legislation would likely force most of the county's 30-some cafes to close. Worse, said Ed Walls, co-owner of Treasure Chest Sweepstakes, banning cafes would put a lot of people out of work and have dire economic consequences.
"If you add up what we contribute in payroll, taxes, plus things like electricity, rent and supplies that we buy at Sam's Club and Walmart, it adds up to millions of dollars every year," said Walls, who employs seven people at his business on U.S. 19, north of County Line Road. "What are you going to replace that lost revenue with?"
Kasberg said he disagrees with those who feel casino-style games are true gambling. Rather, he likens them to playing a scratch-off lottery card, where a finite number of chances to win exist. Besides, he said, "you're not putting money directly in a machine. It's a sweepstakes, just like the lottery and bingo."
However, Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, disagrees. He said he understands the angst and ire of cafe owners and patrons, and he acknowledged the effects the legislation that was passed Friday would have on businesses. But as chairman of the House select committee on gaming, Schenck said, he has done plenty of research on the machines.
"Most legal scholars believe they are illegal, and there are many courts throughout the state that believe they are, so it was incumbent upon us to clarify the language in the statute," Schenck said. "It certainly wasn't the easiest vote I've ever taken, but the law is the law."
Schenck said a state study on gaming is currently under way and is expected to come to his committee for review by the end of the summer. The study, along with public hearings, will help lawmakers take a holistic approach to the issue during the 2014 session.
"If you're going to allow gambling in the state of Florida, which is certainly up for discussion in the next year, it has to be done in a methodical way, and in a way that the state can best capitalize on it," he said.
Because federal law prohibits state taxation of Internet access, the state receives no direct tax revenue from the machines. Kasberg said, however, that he wouldn't mind paying a fee to the state if it meant he could keep his business in operation.
"Paying my fair share doesn't bother me," he said. "Being put out of business does."
Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.