Arcades, Internet cafe bill sent to gov in 36-4 Senate vote

TALLAHASSEE – South Florida senior arcades are likely going out of business.

Lawmakers sent a measure to Gov. Rick Scott Thursday that would outlaw Internet cafes, senior arcades and maquinitas.

"There is nothing in this bill that is going to close down legitimate businesses," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the sponsor of the bill. "This is about closing down unscrupulous operators who have found loopholes in the statutes."

The move comes as a direct response to a state and federal probe into the group Allied Veterans, an Internet café operator, which has been accused of defrauding its customers by advertising itself as a charitable organization for veterans when in reality, it was only giving 2 percent of its profits to charity and pocketing the rest. The investigation caused the resignation of Lieutenant Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had served as a consultant for the group while she was in the House.

But the move to quickly ban these facilities, which offer sweepstakes games, has also swept up other types of gambling establishments in South Florida like senior arcades and maquinitas, basically corner stores or gas stations with a few computers in the back to play games.

The bill updates the definition of slot machines – which are not allowed in Florida establishments without permission from the Legislature – so that it can play either a game of skill or a game of chance. Arcades have argued that they were operating legally because they operated games that required a human skill, which has been a loophole in the law.

But proponents of the bill say there is little difference and that they should all be outlawed.

Arcades or other facilities would not be allowed to give out gift cards as prizes in the future. A popular prize at these facilities has been a Visa or Publix gift card because they are not allowed to give out cash.

Internet cafes put up little public opposition to the changes, largely knowing the political tide had turned against them when Allied Veterans became the target of an investigation and Carroll resigned.

But owners and patrons of senior arcades turned up in Tallahassee in large numbers to protest the changes. Seniors, in particular, said the establishments were part of their social routine.

Four Democrats said they could not vote for the bill knowing that it could put local senior arcades out of business.

Gail Fontaine, the president of the Florida Arcade Association, immediately put out a statement saying that the group was "disappointed and disheartened" by the vote.

"Seniors and children are being punished despite following the rules and providing a safe place for entertainment," she said. "It's highly disappointing to see the Legislature punish our seniors for the misdeeds of Internet cafe operators. We are not gambling establishments. We are noting more than social clubs that provide fun and stimulating games to keep our patrons active and happy."

The bill, HB 155, was immediately sent to Scott for his signature.