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Senate votes 36-4 to ban Internet cafes

After a rigorous debate, the Florida Senate sent to the governor on Thursday a fast-tracked bill designed to clarify that slot-like gambling machines operated in Internet cafes, South Florida's adult arcades and Miami's maquintas are outlawed in Florida.

The measure is a reaction to a federal and state investigation into Allied Veterans of Florida that has led to 57 arrests for illegal gambling, money laundering and racketeering. Police allege that that the pseudo veterans group made $300 million in profits by operating the illegal machines, but allegedly donated only 2 percent of its proceeds to charity. 

Legislators responded by concluding that the vague state law that allowed the gaming centers to operate needed to be clarified to give law enforcement more tools to shut down the illegal machines that have proliferated in strip malls throughout the state.

The Senate voted 36-4 for HB 155, which was approved two weeks ago 108-7 by the Florida House. Gov . Rick Scott has indicated he will sign the bill and it becomes effective upon becoming law. 

Voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Joe Abruzzo of West Palm Beach, Maria Sachs of Delray Beach, Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Jeremy Ring of Margate.

Legislators also have quickly attempted to distance themselves from the fake charity after having received more than $1.4 million from Allied Veterans in the last two years, according to a Herald/Times analysis. They have announced they would donate thousands of dollars in contributions to legitimate veterans groups and other charities.

The Senate rejected three late-filed amendments by Miami Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portila and Rene Garcia to shield the slots-like games operated by adult arcades. 

Senate proponents insisted that the bill is not intended to shut down legitimate adult arcades, who are allowed to operate under a provision in state law that recognizes games that are considered a sweepstakes or are games of skills.

"It's not my intention or anybody’s intention to keep anybody from doing what they’re been doing if theyr’e doing it legally,'' said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the bill's sponsor. "This bill is about stopping illegal gambling in the State of Florida."

But adult arcade operators, who have stocked their centers with the computerized games and look and feel like slot-machines warned that the ruling will spell the death knell for their amusement centers.

“We are disappointed and disheartened by the Florida Senate’s dismissal of amendments to protect hundreds of law-abiding, tax-paying arcades,'' said Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade Association in a statement. "Today’s action means amusement arcades, which have been operating legally for almost 30 years, will be forced to shut down. In addition to affecting Florida’s more than 200 senior arcades, children’s amusement arcades also face similar problems under this legislation."

 But Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, the chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, said the bill was intended to clarify the law, not hurt law-abiding companies.

"This bill is not intended in any shape manner or form to shut down any legitimate business model,'' he said.

Richter will launch a statewide tour this summer to study gambling in Florida and make sweeping updates to the existing gaming laws.