As Florida House begins gambling examination, Internet café bill looms
Feb 20, 2013
By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

Related Coverage:

2013 Legislative Session

 TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The Florida House of Representatives opened its examination of state gambling laws Feb. 19 as a state senator gave more details on his plan for a moratorium on so-called Internet cafés.

The inaugural meeting of the House Select Committee on Gaming came a day after its Senate counterpart closed down for the session after a handful of informational meetings; lawmakers in the upper chamber are waiting for a study the Legislature plans to commission, and they hope to hold a few public meetings across the state.

Much of the information House members received Tuesday was similar to the information provided to the Senate panel in the early part of its deliberations, and Chairman Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, suggested his committee would also not take any immediate action on gambling.

“We do not want more band-aid approaches to gaming in this state,” Schenck said after the meeting. “We want a full, comprehensive plan and that very well may take a year to develop if not longer.”

Meanwhile, Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher fleshed out his idea for a moratorium on Internet cafés, a proposal he floated without elaborating on it at the final meeting of the Senate’s gambling committee on Feb. 18.

Legislators grappled with the issue of Internet cafés – which critics argue are illegal games similar to slot machines – in 2012, but were unable to come to an agreement. Some lawmakers want the businesses banned altogether; others simply want to regulate them.

The industry says it offers computerized versions of legal sweepstakes.

Thrasher said the idea behind the bill would be to essentially pause the rapidly growing industry as legislators try to figure out a broader policy on gambling in Florida.

“Until we have a better feel for what we want to do globally, we ought to call time out,” Thrasher said.

He said current Internet cafes could continue to operate, which would seem to be in line with a response Monday from the Coalition of Internet Cafes, an industry group.

“Depending upon exact details of a proposed moratorium bill, if it allows for existing law-abiding operators and employers to continue in their existing capacity, we believe our coalition will support legislation along these lines,” spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said then.

Schenck was also measured in his response to the idea.

“Right now, we need to do our educational process before we can consider any sort of policy decisions,” he said.

But the House chairman didn’t close the door on the idea.

“I would say, again, this is just the first meeting, but we are certainly open-minded to pretty much anything,” Schenck said.

Thrasher’s bill could be the only one dealing with gambling to be seriously considered by lawmakers. Legislative leaders have indicated that they want to put off dealing with most of the issues – including whether to allow casino-style “destination resorts” in Florida – until the 2014 legislative session.

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, told the panel, “This is probably going to be the last time we meet this session,” Richter said.

That would also presumably cut off consideration of most gambling legislation, like a bill to allow pari-mutuel facilities to stop running dog races, which lose money, but continue to offer profitable games like poker.

Even Sen. Maria Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat who has sponsored similar legislation in the past, said it would have to wait for the broader gambling discussion.

“I wish we could do it this year,” she said. “But we can’t.”

Among those offering testimony before the Senate panel Feb. 18 were casinos that operate “destination resorts” and support legislation to permit such in Florida, including representatives from Las Vegas Sands and Resorts World Miami.

Bill Bunkley, president of Florida Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also testified before the Senate committee.

Bunkley, who represents the interests of the Florida Baptist Convention before the Legislature, told Florida Baptist Witness he reiterated the long-standing opposition of Florida Baptists to all forms of gambling.

He urged the Senate panel to include economic and social costs of gambling as part of its prospective comprehensive study of gambling, affirming the views raised by No Casinos in prior testimony before the panel.

Bunkley also suggested a study of Florida Lottery marketing, expressing concern the agency may be targeting “financially vulnerable citizens.”

He also expressed support for Thrasher’s moratorium on Internet cafés.

With reporting by Florida Baptist Witness

Related Coverage:

2013 Legislative Session

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