Saturday, February 24, 2018
Politics

John Romano: The real story behind the law banning Internet cafes

You can find the historical record for a new bill banning Internet cafes on the state House's website. Look up HB 155 and you will find the bill's original text, more than a dozen amendments, a staff analysis and the vote history.

It all seems quite by-the-book and impressive. There are dates, statutes, names, footnotes and lots and lots of legal terms.

But if you happened to be pressed for time, here is a Cliffs Notes-style time line of how this bill found its way to Gov. Rick Scott's desk:

1. Entrepreneurs discover they can make hefty profits by simulating casino-style games on computers in neighborhood storefronts.

2. Politicians harrumph.

3. Entrepreneurs donate to political campaigns.

4. The harrumphing stops.

5. A federal investigation of one of the largest Internet cafe corporations results in dozens of high-profile arrests and contributes to the resignation of the lieutenant governor.

6. Lawmakers act shocked — Shocked! — to find there is gambling going on.

While this unofficial record of events is not as comprehensive or annotated as the state's version, I like to think it is a more accurate reflection of what really happened.

Because the bill signed into law by Scott on Wednesday had very little to do with public safety or protecting Ma and Pa's bank account.

This legislation was about politicians covering their butts and keeping legalized gambling interests happy.

And, honestly, there's a dose of cold-blooded logic to that. Just so long as no one tries to portray this as some kind of crusade for justice.

For, if lawmakers really were outraged, they would have done something long before these Internet cafes became as ubiquitous as Burger King.

They would have done something when the state's parimutuel industry and the Seminole Tribe began complaining about these pseudo-slot machines cutting into their action.

They would have done something when local municipalities and law enforcement departments suggested the existing laws were too vague.

Instead, for the better part of a decade, politicians have mostly been content to wink, nod and look the other way. It was the Vegas version of "don't ask, don't tell.''

And everyone seemed happy until the handcuffs got in the way.

When a string of cafes run by Allied Veterans of the World got raided last month, accused of misrepresenting themselves as a charitable venture, our lawmakers realized they might want to do more to disassociate themselves from the industry.

Thus, HB 155 was suddenly on the fast track.

So did the Legislature get it right?

These places were essentially mini-casinos, so at the very least they should have fallen under some type of state regulation. And considering how much money parimutuels and the Seminole Tribe pay for the exclusive rights to gambling, they had a right to question why the state wasn't doing anything about it.

But were Internet cafes a scourge on society?

Hardly.

They appear to have been a benign source of entertainment for the elderly. And they were small-business employers in a lot of communities.

You could say Internet cafes had a good run for a long time, but their legal status was always a gamble. On Wednesday, they finally went bust.

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