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Miami says video-gaming machines known as maquinitas are illegal

Across Miami, all video-gaming machines — more popularly known as “ maquinitas’’ in the Little Havana cafeterias and Flagler Street video arcades where most are installed — are illegal, now say the mayor and a top city official.

The reason for the change of heart: A controversial October 2010 bill championed by Mayor Tomas Regalado that required owners of an “amusement game or machine” to pay $500 a year for a license called a “business tax receipt.”

In the 2½ years since the ordinance was adopted, not a single machine owner has purchased the license, for what are believed to be hundreds if not thousands of the devices, administrators say.

“Every one of those machines is illegal,” said Noel Chavez, the city’s occupational license supervisor.

“That’s what I think,” agreed the mayor, whose support for the video-gaming industry caused so much friction between himself and Police Chief Miguel Exposito that it led to the chief’s ouster.

The issue came to light this week as bills rocket through the state legislature that would outlaw video gaming machines at Internet cafes and adult arcades throughout the state. The measures would apply to the type of machines sprinkled around Miami and Hialeah, legislators say.

The argument over the machines turns on the question of whether they are games of chance or skill. Florida law — outside of specified pari-mutuels — broadly forbids gambling, outlawing machines with “any element of chance.’’ The state law says it is “the duty’’ of law enforcement to “seize and take possession’’ of gambling machines.

But maquinita owners have sought to exploit an exception in the law that allows amusement games of skill, like video games at arcades, which can pay small prizes.

More from Charles Rabin and Melissa Sanchez here.