Concerns arise about unintended consequences of Florida's gaming crackdown

David Albers/Staff
Naples resident Cathy Austin plays an electronic slot machine game at Jack Pots adult gaming arcade on Friday, March 22, 2013, in Naples. The adult arcade offers gift certificates to winners instead of cash prizes.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff Naples resident Cathy Austin plays an electronic slot machine game at Jack Pots adult gaming arcade on Friday, March 22, 2013, in Naples. The adult arcade offers gift certificates to winners instead of cash prizes.

TALLAHASSEE — Bingo is safe. So are old-school arcade games and charity raffles.

But while the intention is to crack down on storefront gaming centers, there are some concerns that a proposed ban on Internet cafes could be casting a wider net than originally intended.

The state House on Friday approved a measure — House Bill 155 — that clarifies the definition of slot machines and other gaming machines commonly used in Internet cafes and adult amusement arcades. The state Senate is expected to pass a companion bill in the coming weeks.

The centers were the subject of proposed legislation in the past, but consideration accelerated 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 as lieutenant governor 10 days ago.

The Legislature’s move to prohibit businesses from giving out gift cards or other cash equivalents as prizes essentially would shutter the storefront gaming centers that dot strip malls across the state.

“If the language passes as is, the adult arcades would be illegal,” said Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee-based gaming attorney. “All children’s arcades would be illegal as well. These machines cannot survive.”

The reason: The state is looking to change the definition of a slot machine so that the presumption is that an electronic gaming device is a slot machine if it simulates games of chance.

Adult arcades and Internet cafes operate under different sections of the law. Internet cafes operate under the sweepstakes and game promotions law. Supporters of the ban said owners of these businesses are skirting the law because the product that customers purchase — Internet time or a phone card — isn’t the reason they’re being drawn to the storefront.

“The card is immaterial,” said Judy Patterson, senior vice president and executive director of the American Gaming Association. “(The customers) want to go play the credits and get to online gambling.”

Adult arcades, on the other hand, operate under a law that allows businesses like Chuck E. Cheese to offer games. Unlike the family friendly companies, adult arcades often are considered a gray area of the law. Courts have found these establishments are legal because the games operate with an element of both skill and chance.

The state has no guidelines as to how much skill is needed for the games to be considered of skill, not chance.

However, those who support a ban said patrons go to these adult arcades with the sole purpose to gamble.

The state has no guidelines as to how much skill is needed for the games to be considered of skill, not chance.

The games aren’t allowed at pari-mutuels, such as the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs, because the state agency regulating games said they need to be 100 percent skill to not be considered a slot machine.

“I think everyone supports (getting rid of) adult arcades,” said Dunbar, whose clients support the proposed ban. “The adult arcade industry used to be the dominant gray market industry. The Legislature is terribly worried.”

But there also are concerns that the legislation will affect games at children’s arcades.

Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said these family businesses often give out gift cards to winners, instead of trinkets.

Dunbar said he understands the concern and that it’s his belief that initial drafts of the law would knock out the ability of these places to operate.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, though.

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz on NewsMakers 03-10-13.

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz on NewsMakers 03-10-13.

“I asked are we going to be able to thread the needle so that we’re not sweeping up legitimate businesses like Chuck E. Cheese, McDonald’s and other businesses like that, but still get bad people,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “This will take some careful wording. And it may take us coming back a second time to sand off any rough edges.”

Gaetz said he was assured by members of the Senate Gaming Committee that the bill wouldn’t harm legitimate businesses.

Gary Rutledge, a Tallahassee-based gaming attorney who represents pari-mutuels, said he hasn’t heard any concerns that kids’ arcades or games that appear in bowling alleys or restaurants will take a hit. Instead, Rutledge said, legislators have guaranteed those won’t be touched.

Gaetz said he understands the law may not be perfect, but he’s willing to take the risk to ensure illegal ventures are shut down.

“I can’t remember a single bill that I’ve passed in the Florida Senate that couldn’t be improved upon a year or two later with someone looking back and saying gee, we didn’t think of this — let’s go back and sand the rough edge off,” he said. “We may have to do that with the Internet cafe ban, but I think we have to do the right thing, the legal thing and the moral thing and that’s get rid of these predatory enterprises.”

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Comments » 2

Marco-Bob writes:

Politicians must not be able to skim enough money off for themselves.

bk52girl writes:

in response to Marco-Bob:

Politicians must not be able to skim enough money off for themselves.

Your so right. This state does not like anything they can't get their hands into also. It's the worse state I have ever lived in and working my way to get out. If your not here just for the SUN get out.

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