Thursday, May 24, 2018
Politics

Senate committee supports bill carving arcades out of Internet cafe ban

TALLAHASSEE — Arcades like Dave & Busters and Chuck E Cheese will no longer be in violation of state law when they operate their coinless games under a bill that won unanimous support Wednesday in the Senate Gaming Committee.

The bill, PCB 668 by Sen. Kelli Stargel, is intended to fix a law passed by legislators last year that outlawed Internet cafes, but snagged family amusement centers in the process. The groups organized, pleaded with lawmakers to revise the law and urged local police not to enforce it against them. Legislators returned with bills to revise the ban.

Now, skeptics say, the remedy could cause another round of troubles for the state's porous gambling laws.

Marc Dunbar, a gaming law expert and lobbyist for the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, told the Senate committee that the bill could allow clever operators to use holes in the law to develop technology that could bring a new round of electronic games to Florida's strip malls, and police would be powerless to stop them.

If this bill passes in its current form, without some state regulator to enforce it, he said that illegal operators will be popping up across the state and "law enforcement are essentially playing a game of whack-a-mole."

The bill revises the definition of an amusement game and allows them to be placed in arcades, truck stops, bowling centers, hotels and restaurants. It removes the requirement that operators have 50 games in their centers and it now allows players to use different types of currency — tokens, cards or coupons — instead of just coins to operate the games. It raises the total prize per game from 75 cents to $5.25, and allows for prizes valued at up to $50.

"Our target was not family arcades,'' said Stargel, R-Lakeland. The bill provides clarification "that these amusement centers need to continue to provide entertainment for children and adults."

She said that senior arcade centers, which had been closed after last year's bill, could be reopened if they follow these rules. But, she warned, the bill prohibits video lottery terminals or casino-style games unless they are certified games of skill.

Dunbar, however, said the bill was loaded with potential problems and urged the committee to give the state the authority to regulate the games, instead of relying on local police to enforce the law.

He said that despite Florida's ban on Internet cafes last year, which prohibited any slot-machine look-alike that was not considered a game of skill, many illegal games continue to operate around the state. Owners rely on out-of-state companies to supply them with certificates that allegedly prove their games require skill and law enforcement can't keep up, he said.

"The gray market industry is very vibrant in Florida because we do not have a regulator on top of our gaming code,'' he said.

Dunbar also warned that the bill also legalizes claw machines — which the federal government currently considers an illegal gambling device — thereby violating the state compact with the Seminole Tribe and potentially jeopardizing $250 million in annual payments.

Legislators have relied on Dunbar as a frequent expert in gaming law, often seeking his input as they drafted a massive overhaul of the state's gaming regulations. But, this time, the committee ignored his warnings. With no discussion, committee members voted out the bill without a single negative vote.

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said the goal of the bill was not to prevent future violations, but to resolve the problem for existing businesses inadvertently caught in the Internet cafe ban.

"This bill that we took up today, it's intent is not to curb (problems) in the future," he said. "It was trying to correct the past.''

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