COMMITTEE LIKES INTERNET CAFÉ REGULATIONS BUT NOT BAN
By JIM SAUNDERS
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, January 19, 2012.......... Setting up a potential clash with the House, a Senate committee Thursday approved a bill that would regulate Internet cafés --- and rebuffed a proposed ban on the hundreds of businesses that critics compare to "storefront casinos.''
The vote came a day after Gov. Rick Scott said he supported banning the establishments and two days after a House panel approved a bill to shut them down.
But the Senate Regulated Industries Committee voted 8-1 to place an array of regulations on the cafés and allow them to continue operating. Also, Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, had to table a separate bill that called for banning Internet cafés, after it became apparent the committee likely would kill it.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who is sponsoring the regulation bill (SB 380), said lawmakers need to "deal with the reality we have." As many as 1,000 Internet cafés are estimated to have opened across the state and employ thousands of people.
"This is a business, it's a real business,'' said Brevard County resident Julie Slattery, who operates two cafés. "It's a form of entertainment.''
But Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who was the lone dissenting vote on the committee, said the bill would effectively approve more gambling in the state.
"I do think it's an expansion of gambling,'' Thrasher said. "I think it's a major expansion of gambling.''
Internet cafés are part of a series of major gambling-related issues that lawmakers face during this year's legislative session.
Operators of the cafés argue that they offer computerized sweepstakes-style games that are allowed under state law. But critics contend the games are like slot machines, which have been illegal for decades in most of the state.
SB 380 would place new restrictions on the businesses, such as requiring that they file copies of game rules and regulations with the state, certify that their computer software complies with certain standards and pay a $100 fee to the state for each terminal. Also, it would allow cities and counties to approve further regulations.
At least part of the Internet café industry, along with charitable groups that receive money from cafés, are supporting the regulatory approach. But Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, law-enforcement groups and the Florida Chamber of Commerce support a ban.
"All of law enforcement is opposed to regulating this industry,'' said April Kirsheman, who is general counsel for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office and testified Thursday on behalf of the Florida Sheriff's Association. "We seek to prohibit this industry.''
After the committee approved the regulation bill, it took up Oelrich's proposal (SB 428) to ban the cafés. Oelrich, a former Alachua County sheriff, listened to debate before deciding to table the bill --- a move that procedurally helps keep it alive as the House considers whether to pass a ban.
House sponsor Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said after the meeting he will continue trying to move the proposed ban (HB 3) through the House. He said he doesn't think the House would approve a regulation bill similar to the Diaz de la Portilla measure, as it would be viewed as authorizing expanded gambling.
Plakon also noted that the legislative session is only in its second week, which leaves a lot of time for maneuvering on the café issue.
"On day 10 (of the session), I wouldn't predict anything,'' he said.