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Senate committee unanimously approves Internet cafe ban, closing loopholes

Despite aggressive pleas from senior citizens and veterans groups, the Florida Senate moved closer to outlawing all slot machine-like games at Internet cafes, Miami's machinitas and South Florida's adult arcades that had expanded into a multi-million dollar industry in the face of legislative inaction.

"I think we let it get out of hand and I think we’re bringing it back now to what the original intent was,'' said Sen. John Thrasher, the sponsor of the SB 1030, which was unanimously approved by the Senate Rules Committee Tuesday. He said it will be placed on the Senate calendar for a floor vote on Thursday and he will move to take up the House bill that passed lawt week and send it to the governor.

The measure is a swift response to a federal and state corruption probe that has led to the arrest of 57 people associated with Allied Veterans of Florida, the chain of gaming centers that purported to operate a charity but which police say was a gambling and money laundering scam.

The indictments led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had once worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans, and has resulted in Florida lawmakers, who had been warned by law enforcement for years about the illegal machines, the act quickly to shut down the industry.

"What this is really about is gambling,'' said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "Unfortunately, we have let things slip through the cracks and let things go on for too long.''

The bill updates the definition of slot machines, clarifies that exceptions for sweepstakes must be incidental games -- not continuous play; coin-operated games must involve an element of skill and players are limited to prizes valued at 75 cents and may not be accumulated over time. A nearly identical bill (HB 155) passed the House 108-7 last week.

Thrasher said the bill is intended to clarify existing law and not shut down adult or children's arcades, such as Dave & Busters and Chuck e Cheese. He vowed that he "will not back down" from his position that if the machines are illegal now, they will not be carved into a loophole.

"What we're trying to do is make sure our kids are not exposed to slot machines,'' he said. "In my opinion, the bill does not keep charities from conducting drawings and raffles -- just as they have been able to do for years. If they -- because of existing loopholes in the statutes -- have moved into areas they should not have, they will have to adjust.''

But dozens of players traveled to Tallahassee to plead with the committee to exempt the gaming machines used at adult arcades and the Florida Adult Arcade and Bingo Association hired a public relations firm to help them press their case.

"I'm here to day to preserve the existence of arcades as they are today,'' said Anita Silverman, 82, of Delray Beach. She said she has gone to the Atlantic Arcade in Delray Beach twice and liked it. "Saturday night is the lonliest night in the week,'' she told the committee, noting that she has been a widow for 18 years. "So please consider us. It is an outlet for us."

Ledia Herrera, 69, of Hialeah, told the committee she doesn't go to the local senior arcade to gamble but to socialize. "We don't spend much money. We just have a good time,'' she said. "We have lunch. We have dinner. We celebrate our birthday there. If they close, a lot of seniors are going to be very lonely."

Experts say the machines are computerize slot machines that are rigged by owners with no guaranteed payout or customer protections. Owners of the machines counter that they are games of skill and do not operate like slot machines. They warn that the legislation will ruin the business model for their entertainment centers and close the door to thousands of seniors.Gale Fontaine, of Lighthouse Point, who is president of Gale Fontaine Amusements scolded the committee for turning their backs on the senior citizens who elected them to office.

"All of you are here because of them and none of you understand it,'' she said, noting that seniors "fought and saved our country" and yet many of them suffer mental illness "sitting home alone.

"This is somewhere for them to go, to be with people of their own age," she said. "We give our food away for free. We them with a place to go to a safe place -- no drinking, no smoking. If they wanted to gamble, they'd go to a casino."

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, urged the committee to consider carving out a loophole that would exclude the adult arcades, which have been operating gaming machines under a 28-year-old provision in state law. 

“They’re a legitimate business and there’s unintended consequences by putting them in a different category,’’ she said, to applause from the audience. “If there needs to be more regulation on this group, so be it.”

 Sen. Bill Galvano called it a “clarification bill” and noted that the ideas are not new but “the problem is the interpretation has become difficult,’’ 

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who represents many arcades in his district said he was torn about supporting the bill but was disappointed the industry failed to agree to regulations before now.

“When I brought it up, instead of coming to me and saying 'let's work together,' it has been vehemently opposed,'' Ring said. "The opposition shut down my office for a whole week.…I have a problem with the individuals driving this industry.’’