Internet cafes across Florida could soon be forced to close their doors as state lawmakers continue to move swiftly to outlaw the storefront operations.
The Florida House on Friday voted overwhelmingly to approve a ban on the cafes, and the Senate is expected to follow soon and send a bill to Gov. Rick Scott.
The Legislature is feeling pressure to act 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. Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, resigned last week after she was questioned about consulting work she did for Allied.
"This will be one of the largest contractions of gaming that we've experienced in our state certainly over the last 50 or 100 years," said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami and sponsor of the ban. "It sends a message to all the people who are out there stealing from seniors and exploiting the good names of veterans. We don't want you here in Florida. You weren't welcome before. You won't be welcome in the future."
The vote was 108-7 in favor of the bill.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, predicts the bill will be sent to Gov. Rick Scott before the session ends in early May.
Those backing the ban called internet cafes a cancer that has spread throughout neighborhoods, but a handful of legislators said the legislation went too far.
Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, criticized the bill because it would put out of business adult arcades that are used heavily by senior citizens. Adult arcades, prevalent in South Florida, offer gift cards to winning players. Arcade owners have maintained that they offer games that require a skill and therefore don't qualify as gambling.
"What you are doing is harming the state of Florida; you are harming the seniors," Waldman said.
But Trujillo maintained that the adult arcades are engaged in gambling as well because the games offered rely on chance. He also noted that the adult arcades offer the equivalent of cash.
In addition, Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, questioned the move to ban the storefront operations instead of trying to regulate them.
"I don't see why we have to jump to making it a crime," Schwartz said.
Legislators have considered bills the past two years to ban the internet cafes, but they stalled amid debates over whether to outlaw or regulate the operations.
The businesses in Florida and elsewhere that rely on electronic sweepstakes often operate in a gray area. The game-makers argue they are legal sweepstakes because there's a predetermined number of winners, similar to a McDonald's Monopoly game or Coca-Cola's cap contest.
Attorney Kelly Mathis, accused of masterminding the charity gambling scheme, wrote opinion pieces and argued before local governments that the games were legal. He said many customers don't have Internet at home and pay bills, prepare resumes and check email there.
An Associated Press review of the key players behind the Allied Veterans charity showed they pumped in excess of $1 million into the campaign accounts of Florida politicians who had the power to regulate or put them out of business.
Both Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida have already announced plans to donate money to charity that equals the amount received from those associated with the scandal.