Hillsborough is rightly joining its neighboring counties to crack down on Internet sweepstakes cafes, the fancy-named gambling houses that are spreading like flu across Florida. A measure going before the County Commission this month would preserve several dozen dens that already exist, then bar any new operations. Something on the books is better than nothing. But county commissioners would be more responsible by adopting an all-out ban.
County Commissioner Sandra Murman has worked diligently for months in cooperation with Sheriff David Gee on ways to shut down what authorities view as illegal gambling operations. A typical sweepstakes cafe sells phone cards or Internet access to people who can then log onto a computer and play slot machine-style games. Customers are not surfing the Internet or checking their e-mail, but are being induced to wager the value of their cards in the hopes of winning money. That's called gambling.
Hillsborough's ordinance would require existing cafes to register with the county. They would pay licensing fees, submit employees to background checks and agree to open the business to regular inspections. New cafes could not open after the date the ordinance takes effect, and no business grandfathered in could transfer its license. The law would apply in unincorporated parts of Hillsborough.
Murman has attempted to craft an effective tool for law enforcement. The measure would not affect fundraising efforts for schools and the like, or legitimate arcades and bingo games. The commission has no excuse for getting cold feet and adopting a half-measure that makes winners and losers out of the same predatory operations. Gambling operators could just as easily mount a legal challenge to the grandfathering exemption as they could to an outright ban. And the whole point, anyway, is not to regulate these operations piecemeal, county by county, but to build pressure on the Florida Legislature to deal with these games on a statewide basis in the 2012 legislative session.
Hillsborough should follow the lead of Pinellas, Pasco and other jurisdictions that are at the forefront of this fight. Sending a strong message to Tallahassee is the surest way to rid these cafes from our communities.