Bunkley: ‘Storefront casinos’ may be bargaining chip in ‘Tallahassee power struggle’
Jan 23, 2012

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Legislative Session 2012
TALLAHASSEE (NSF/FBW) – Although glamorous destination resort casinos have been the focus of the Legislature for months, legislation addressing so-called “storefront casinos” took center stage in the second week of the session – and may be a chip used in negotiations later in the session, according to Florida Baptist lobbyist Bill Bunkley.

Meanwhile, bills relating to abortion, human trafficking and assisted-living facilities are at various stages of consideration.

While Gov. Rick Scott for the first time called for a ban on Internet gambling cafés and a House committee approved legislation to do just that, a Senate committee moved the opposite direction by passing a bill to regulate the controversial businesses.

Bunkley, president of the Florida Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (FERLC), told Florida Baptist Witness he supports the outright ban of the Internet café, rather than mere regulation.

But Bunkley warned a “Tallahassee power struggle” emerging on the Internet café bills could result in the legislation being used as a bargaining chip in the debate over destination resorts casinos.

“Now that Gov. Scott has publicly voiced his support for our banning position, the stakes are now raised that this issue will be part of a larger negotiation package as the session moves forward,” he said.

Bunkley said the House’s support for the Internet café ban may have “prompted the Senate to play the opposite card,” setting up a possible later compromise on the destination resorts bill, which has received more favorable consideration in the Senate than the House.

Bunkley spoke in favor of banning the Internet cafés before both Senate and House committees.

FERLC, formed recently with the support of Florida Baptist Convention executive director-treasurer John Sullivan and various pastors, supports Bunkley’s work in Tallahassee.

Gov. Scott called the Internet cafés “illegal” and said they should be shut down.

“I don’t believe that the Internet locations are legal, or should be legal,” Scott said in brief comments with reporters Jan. 18, taking his firmest stand to date on the issue.

“I believe that it’s an area that doesn’t make sense and I don’t believe in it,” he said. 

Scott has mostly remained above the vocal fight over expanding gambling that has emerged. He has said he is OK with many existing forms of gambling, including tribal casinos and has defended the Lottery, saying it has funneled billions into education. But he reiterated that he is wary of deepening the state’s reliance on revenue from gamblers. 

“My position has been I don’t want our budget to be dependent on gaming,” Scott said. 

Despite the governor’s call for a ban, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee voted 8-1 on Jan. 19 to place an array of regulations on the cafés and allow them to continue operating. Also, Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, had to table a separate bill that called for banning Internet cafés, after it became apparent the committee likely would kill it.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who is sponsoring the regulation bill (SB 380), said lawmakers need to “deal with the reality we have.” As many as 1,000 Internet cafés are estimated to have opened across the state and employ thousands of people.

But Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who was the lone dissenting vote on the committee, said the bill would effectively approve more gambling in the state.

Related Coverage:

Legislative Session 2012

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