TALLAHASSEE — TALLAHASSEE — The fate of storefront gaming centers is now in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott.
The state Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation Thursday that would prohibit storefront gaming centers. The legislation clarifies the definition of slot machines and other gaming machines often used in these centers, commonly called Internet cafes.
Internet cafes have been subject of proposed legislation in the past, but the legislation was fast-tracked this year after a statewide investigation into gaming activities by a charity, Allied Veterans of the World. The investigation led to 57 arrests and Jennifer Carroll’s resignation last month as lieutenant governor.
The Senate passed the legislation 36-4, with both state Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, voting for the bill. The state House has already approved the measure. It’s now headed to the governor’s office and the Naples Republican has said he will sign it.
While aimed at shutting down Internet cafes, the legislation would also essentially shutter the senior amusement arcades that dot strip malls across the state. The reason: The legislation changes the definition of a slot machine so the presumption is that an electronic gaming device is a slot machine if it simulates games of chance.
Internet cafes had been able to operate under a state law that allows sweepstakes and game promotions. Supporters of the legislation said these business skirt the law because the product the customer purchases — Internet time or a phone card — isn’t the reason they’re being drawn to the establishment.
Adult arcades, on the other hand, operate under a law that allows businesses such as Chuck E. Cheese to offer games. But supporters of the ban said adult arcades operate in a gray area of the law, because patrons go to these establishments with the sole purpose to gamble.
Those opposed to the bill said they believed it went too far and would result in the closure of these senior arcades. But senators on Thursday said if they were operating within the letter of the law, then they would not be forced to close their doors.
“We’re closing down illegal operations in the state,” said Richter, who chairs the Senate Gaming Committee. “We’re not interested in shutting down anything legal.”
Benacquisto, who also serves on the gaming committee, said the legislation clarifies existing law and that state lawmakers aren’t going after legal businesses.
“For legal machines in legal businesses, those doors will stay open,” she said.
But a handful of senators said Thursday the legislation will have sweeping consequences, even for those businesses operating legally.
“This wide net will affect a lot of innocent people,” said state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who ultimately voted for the bill. “Sometimes it happens that the just pay for the sins of the sinners.”
Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade Association, said Thursday her organization was “disappointed and disheartened” by the Senate’s decision, and said the decision will mean amusement arcades “will be forced to shut down.”
“It’s highly disappointing to see the Legislature punish our seniors for the misdeeds of Internet cafe operators,” she said in a statement. “We are not gambling establishments. We are nothing more than social clubs that provide fun and stimulating games to keep or patrons active and happy.”
A comprehensive review of gaming and gambling in the state may address the concerns of senior amusement center owners. Richter said if there are unintended consequences of the legislation, they will be dealt with as part of the ongoing review process.
Still, Richter said he doesn’t think seniors should give up on adult arcades quite yet.
“I think they’re fine,” he said. “I think they’re going to be fine.”
__The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press contributed to this report.