Sunday, November 19, 2017
Politics

Another gambling debate roils over Internet sweepstakes cafes

RECOMMENDED READING


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The proposal to ban the cafes was withdrawn after supporters realized the Senate panel might kill it.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

Comments
Senate ethics, relatively silent, could face busy year

Senate ethics, relatively silent, could face busy year

WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly six years since the Senate Ethics Committee conducted a major investigation of a sitting senator. Next year, the panel could be working nonstop, deciding the fate of up to three lawmakers, including two facing allegation...
Updated: 8 hours ago
In struggling upstate New York cities, refugees vital to rebirth

In struggling upstate New York cities, refugees vital to rebirth

UTICA, N.Y.Pat Marino pulled into the shop on a cold, wet Thursday and stood close as a young mechanic with gelled-up hair and earrings lifted the truck and ducked underneath."You need a little bit more oil," the mechanic said."Five quarts wasn’t eno...
Updated: 11 hours ago
As sex scandals topple the powerful: Why not Trump?

As sex scandals topple the powerful: Why not Trump?

WASHINGTON — "You can do anything," Donald Trump once boasted, speaking of groping and kissing unsuspecting women. Maybe he could, but not everyone can. The man who openly bragged about grabbing women’s private parts — but denied he really did so — w...
Published: 11/17/17
Allegations against Alabama’s Roy Moore dividing GOP women

Allegations against Alabama’s Roy Moore dividing GOP women

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Standing on the white marble steps of Alabama’s Capitol, Kayla Moore surrounded herself with two dozen other women Friday to defend husband Roy Moore against accusations of sexual misconduct that are dividing Republicans, and women...
Published: 11/17/17
Franken apologizes to woman who says he kissed, groped her

Franken apologizes to woman who says he kissed, groped her

WASHINGTON — Minnesota Sen. Al Franken personally apologized to the woman who has accused him of forcibly kissing her and groping her during a 2006 USO tour, saying he remembers their encounter differently but is "ashamed that my actions ruined that ...
Published: 11/17/17
Negative mailers trace back to campaign of state House candidate who denies them

Negative mailers trace back to campaign of state House candidate who denies them

An 87-year-old widow from Melbourne, a mysterious direct mail company in tiny Buffalo, Wyo., and a tangled web of political committees all were linked to the onslaught of negative mailers that helped Lawrence McClure win the Republican primary in Pla...
Published: 11/17/17

10,000 more FBI records unsealed from JFK assassination files

DALLAS — Yet again, the National Archives released a trove of records from the Kennedy assassination files on a Friday afternoon, another strange stream of loose ends, dead ends and tangents with little apparent connection to the assassination of the...
Published: 11/17/17
William March: Why Jose Vazquez had to campaign from a prison cell

William March: Why Jose Vazquez had to campaign from a prison cell

Jose Vazquez, Democratic nominee in the Dec. 19 state House District 58 special election, doesn’t seem like a criminal. He’s 43, divorced with six children, and has worked as a security guard and in auto recycling. He was a high-level political field...
Published: 11/17/17
Selective outrage: Trump criticizes Franken, silent on Moore

Selective outrage: Trump criticizes Franken, silent on Moore

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is displaying selective outrage over allegations of sexual harassment against prominent men in politics, as his own tortured past lingers over his response. Trump moved quickly Thursday to condemn accusations again...
Published: 11/17/17
Franken draws swift condemnation in Congress after woman claims he groped her

Franken draws swift condemnation in Congress after woman claims he groped her

WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., faced swift condemnation and bipartisan calls for an ethics investigation Thursday after he was accused of forcibly kissing and groping a broadcaster and model while traveling overseas in 2006.The allegations ag...
Published: 11/16/17