Nearly a week after a multistate illegal gambling investigation led to dozens of arrests and the resignation of Florida's lieutenant governor, a Senate panel Monday cleared its version of a ban on the gambling establishments commonly known as Internet cafes.
The Senate gaming committee voted unanimously on the bill (SB 1030) that now has evolved into an outright prohibition on the strip-mall casinos. The vote follows a House committee's clearing of its own bill on Friday banning Internet cafes.
The Legislature is feeling the pressure to act on the storefront gambling dens after Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned last week in the wake of an investigation into the Allied Veterans of the World charity. It was accused of running a $290 million illegal gambling business that directed most of the proceeds into its owners' pockets.
That probe has resulted in almost 50 arrests. Carroll had provided public-relations representation to the operation before her election; she has not been charged.
Sen. Garrett Richter, the Naples Republican who chairs the committee, made clear that Florida law says gambling is illegal until it's declared legal, such as church bingo or South Florida's Indian casinos. The Internet cafes, he said, "wiggled their way through perceived loopholes."
A host of representatives from charitable groups, including the American Legion, worried that their gambling activities could be threatened. Even a Roman Catholic priest showed up, concerned about bingo.
Sen. John Thrasher, the bill's sponsor, said he didn't think the bill would affect them and did not intend it to do so. The bill is about clarifying existing law, not making new law, he said.
In fact, Thrasher said lawmakers should have cleaned up the law sooner. The latest bill, for instance, updates the language about outlawed slot machines to include "systems or networks of devices" as well as individual machines.
"I put some of the burden on us," he said. "Perhaps we should have acted two or three years ago. Perhaps we should have even acted (before) that."
But Internet cafe owners and workers also spoke out to defend their businesses.
They said they were providing a social outlet to senior citizens and others, calling their regular clientele "like family." Others added that the cafes provide needed jobs, including for cafe staff and hired security guards, and they pay rent for retail space that otherwise would go empty.
Some people wore T-shirts that said "Regulate, Do Not Eliminate." Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, dashed their hopes.
"That is just not where we are at this point," he told the audience before voting for the ban.
Tami Patel has owned the "Lucky Duck 2" Internet cafe in Spring Hill for three years. Her senior citizen customers are "outraged," she told a reporter.
"It's a social gathering place for those who don't have family," she said. "We had people who wanted to get on a bus and come up to Tallahassee just to speak out on this."
Patel didn't divulge what her business makes, though other owners estimated an average cafe profits about $5,000 a week after labor and overhead.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto told the crowd she had been looking up Internet cafes in Florida on Google to see how they presented themselves to customers. What she saw didn't look socially or charitably oriented, she said.
"They advertise poker, they advertise games of chance, they advertise daily payouts," the Fort Myers Republican and majority leader said. "To me, that sounds like gambling."
Patel and others said they're not twisting arms to fill their businesses with patrons.
"There's no way anyone can say we're taking advantage" of our customers, Patel said. "Everything in life is choice."
Or, as one customer put it, "We don't consider it gambling because we're not there to win. If you're there to win, you're in the wrong place."