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2013 Legislative Session
TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – With little opposition, the Florida House on Friday approved a measure to outlaw the electronic games played in strip malls across Florida at Internet cafés and adult arcades.
The 108-7 vote came a little more than a week after the state’s lieutenant governor resigned due to ties with an Internet café group at the center of a multi-state racketeering investigation. It is likely the first step in closing the businesses, which have been popping across the state with more frequency in recent years.
“It’s about time we actually shut down something that has clearly been illegal in my opinion,” said Rep. Carl Zimmerman, R-Palm Harbor. “Recently people in my district have come to me and told me about some of these establishments that don’t pay out the $3,000 win that a person gets in one day. Instead they pay out $599 per day to avoid taxes. If this is true I think they have other problems yet to be faced.”
The measure (HB 155), sponsored by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, is supported by major pro-business advocates in Tallahassee, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, but became almost inevitable after the investigation into the cafés was announced earlier this month.
The House approved a similar proposal last year, but the measure never reached the Senate floor.
This year the Senate version of the proposal (SB 1030) is expected to appear before the Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who sponsored the bill, before going before the full Senate as early as next week.
Gov. Rick Scott said earlier this week he wanted to review the legislation before deciding if he would it into law, and said so again when speaking to the Miami Herald editorial board on Thursday.
In a March 19 interview with Florida Baptist Witness, Speaker Will Weatherford called the cafés the “largest expansion of gaming that the state has ever had and we never passed a law to do it.”
Banning the cafés will “probably be the biggest reduction in gaming our state has ever had,” said Weatherford, a member of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz.
During the House debate, opponents questioned the hasty effort to close businesses that they say employ thousands.
Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, also said the proposal is taking away an activity that is enjoyed by the elderly.
“Why jump to making it illegal, when the standard is simply to regulate and tax it and having it be in the same world as other gambling?” Schwartz said. “I don’t see why we have to jump to make it a crime when it is something that is very pleasurable, something that can be enjoyed. There is no reason that it should be a criminal activity.”
But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the arcades are a “predatory” industry that preys on people with gambling addictions. He also said the cafés have proliferated in poor neighborhoods and the café owners amass millions of dollars in profit at the expense of poor people who can’t afford to lose money.
Backers of the bill also say the measure simply clarifies existing rules that prohibit the games of chance - and that the places should have been illegal all along. They also dismissed the fiscal impact numbers, saying the total could include amusement games found in businesses such as Chuck E. Cheese and Dave & Buster’s that aren’t impacted by the prohibition - because their offerings are games of skill.
While legislators have been critical of the arcades for several years, the bill has rapidly made its way through both sides of the Legislature in response to the statewide investigation into alleged illegal gaming by a charity, Allied Veterans of the World.
The probe already has led to 57 arrests. The investigation also resulted in the resignation on March 12 of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had consulted for Allied while in the Legislature.
Weatherford told the Witness, “It’s unfortunate it took a scandal of this magnitude to get people to recognize what was going on with the Internet cafés.”
Regarding the Florida Senate’s unwillingness last year to go along with the ban passed by the House, Weatherford said, “I can’t speak to why the other chamber didn’t want to pass it. But I’m thankful that we’re getting it done now.”
With reporting by Florida Baptist Witness.
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