Thursday, June 21, 2018
Politics

Another gambling debate roils over Internet sweepstakes cafes

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers on Thursday sent a message to opponents of Internet sweepstakes cafes: Don't bet on a ban yet.

Sidestepping a proposal supported by sheriffs, prosecutors and Gov. Rick Scott to outlaw the cafes, a Senate committee voted to allow the businesses and their slots-style video machines to remain open, albeit with new regulations.

"I guess there's a shortage of real crime out there. There's a need to create some more so you can go ahead and prosecute it," said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, speaking to law enforcement officials who sought the ban.

Sweepstakes cafes use a loophole in state law to operate slot-style video games. Most law enforcement officials consider them illegal though operators, including those in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, have challenged shutdowns in court.

More than 1,000 cafes operate around Florida, employing 8 to 13 people each, according to state estimates.

At the cafes, customers purchase Internet time or a phone card that they then use to access casino-style sweepstakes games on computers. Points won in the games can be redeemed for cash. Operators say it's legal because they merely promote the business — like McDonald's pull-tab games. They insist winning is predetermined, not up to chance.

Others beg to disagree.

"To say it's not gambling flies in the face of reality," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

The bill to regulate the burgeoning industry, which is sponsored by Diaz de la Portilla, would set requirements to operate the cafes and mandate companies pay the state $100 a machine. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, cast the lone dissent in the 8-1 vote, saying it was "a major expansion of gambling."

The proposal to ban the cafes was withdrawn after supporters realized the Senate panel might kill it.

But a similar ban has moved forward in the House.

Rep. Scott Plakon, the sponsor of the House proposal, blames the cafes for setting up in strip malls that are accessible to families. Plakon, a Longwood Republican, says the cafes encourage violence and prey on the poor and elderly.

He has an ally in the governor. "I don't believe that the Internet locations are legal or should be legal,'' Scott said this week. "It's an area that I think doesn't make sense. I don't believe in it."

A House panel voted 10-5 this week for a ban, which is also supported by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and state Baptist Convention.

But the industry has lobbied hard to protect its economic interests.

"Our governor, the 'jobs governor' has an opportunity to keep 8,000 to 13,000 jobs, rather than eliminate 8,000 to 13,000 jobs and add people to the unemployment line," Diaz de la Portilla said.

Operators defend the Internet cafes. Julie Slattery, an owner of two cafes from Melbourne, suggested regulation would purge venues with problems.

"Honestly, we're not all created equally," said Slattery, who described her business as clean of crime. "We provide a much desired form of entertainment, I think we all know that. But we also give a safe haven for a lot of elderly people in particular to come for social events.

An already tricky issue is made difficult by another tricky debate: whether to allow three mega-resort casinos in the state.

The House sponsor of that measure, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, wants to pair his casino proposal with a Internet cafe ban in an attempt to placate anti-gambling lawmakers.

But the Senate casino resort bill permits Internet cafes to remain in place.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected]

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