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Gambling fight Number 2: Internet cafes -- ban or eliminate?

Shrouded by all the talk of bringing Las Vegas casinos to South Florida a little fight has been brewing over the fate of Internet cafes.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, filed a bill on Wednesday calling for the regulation of the strip mall gambling dens that have cropped up in as many as 1,000 locations. It's a dramatic departure from the bill filed in the House by Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Sanford, which would outlaw them completely. The two will battle it out and, ultimately, whatever is decided is likely to be subsumed into the casino legislation in the Legislature's rhetorical attempt to argue that tougher regulation of internet cafes will result in a "net reduction" of gambling in Florida even with the introduction of resort casinos. 

The so-called "Internet Cafes" and maquinitas have popped up in shopping plazas across Florida in recent years, drawing customers to their walls of games that mimic the look and feel of traditional slot machines. But they are not regulated by the state like slot machines, or even the lottery. They are covered under the state's "sweepstakes" regulations, which emerged in the era of Publisher's Clearinghouse and mailed in come ons.

“By increasing regulation, placing stringent requirements on software certification and verification, and by giving local cities and counties the ability to adopt local ordinances or resolutions to limit or regulate electronic game promotions in their area, I believe we are addressing the need for reform without putting legitimate Florida businesses out of business,” Diaz de la Portilla  said in a statement.

His bill is expected to be supported in the Senate, where a coalition of moderate senators are expected to oppose any attempt by the House to ban what law enforcement now considers grey market games.

Plakon is ready for the fight. He estimates that the industry generates $1 billion in annual revenues and earns good will by contributing millions to local charities. "Nobody knows where the money goes,'' Plakon said. "Gaming in our state has been a very carefully negotiated public policy for decades and we've come up with a few dozen places where we can gambling. This is out of control. It's a massive amount of gambling that's untaxed, unregulated."

Diaz de la Portilla's bill would:

* Require operators to pay a fee and submit financial data with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency that now monitors sweepstakes machines

* Impose limits on operators with a criminal or civil judgement against them

* Give counties and cities the abilityt o adopt ordinances to regulate and fine them, and even ban them.