Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Editorials

Ban Florida's Internet gambling cafes

The Florida House may have shut down debate about destination casinos for this year, but now lawmakers need to heed Gov. Rick Scott's call and also shut down the state's unregulated Internet cafe industry. The gambling parlors offer all the allure and pitfalls of South Florida parimutuels' slot machines but none of the regulation. They could also jeopardize the state's lucrative Seminole Indian compact. Florida will be better off without them.

It once appeared lawmakers might deal with Internet cafes as part of the broader casino bill — either by banning them or bringing them under regulation. But Friday, facing defeat in his first committee hearing, the House sponsor of the casino bill, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, opted to table the entire casino measure for now. That virtually assures casinos will not be considered by the full House before its anticipated March adjournment.

Now opposing viewpoints on Internet cafes between the two chambers' leaders — the House wants to ban them, the Senate wants to regulate them — threaten to maintain the unacceptable status quo. As many as 1,000 of the upstarts can be found across the state, many of them in neighborhood strip malls. Their gambling purpose is clear: Customers buy a phone card, which gives them points to play various sweepstakes games on the cafe's desktop computers. Customers then wager those points in hope of winning money.

Sheriffs in some counties such as Pinellas and Pasco have shut down the enterprises as illegal gambling operations. Local governments such as Hillsborough County have outlawed the cafes — all of which has prompted lawsuits. Earlier this month, the Seminole Indian tribe warned it will stop its annual $230 million payments to the state if Internet cafes aren't banned this session. Under the 2010 compact, the tribe has exclusive rights to operate slot machines outside South Florida.

These cafes would require authorization of the Legislature to operate legally. But Florida doesn't need more gambling — especially the kind that can pop up in any neighborhood at any time. And they should not jeopardize the Seminole Indian compact.

Doing nothing or voting to regulate these enterprises will just reward those scofflaws who have already disregarded state law and preyed on Floridians' wallets. Republican lawmakers who claimed to be all about reducing the state's gambling footprint earlier this session as they pushed casinos should now actually deliver. Ban Internet cafes.

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