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Internet café stand-off: Senate committee passes regulation, House and Scott want shut-down

by Dara Kam | January 19th, 2012

An Internet café showdown is shaping up after a Senate committee overwhelmingly approved a measure that would regulate the “casinos-on-corner” shortly before the sponsor of a proposal that would shut them down withdrew his bill from consideration.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee signed off on the regulation of the cafés (SB 380) after hearing from proponents who said the facilities provide up to 13,000 jobs and are a place for seniors to socialize.

“We have never had one, eensy-teensy, bit of crime,” said Julie Slattery, who owns two Internet cafés in Melbourne.

“This is a business. It’s a real business. It’s a form of entertainment,” Slattery said. She asked the committee to regulate rather than shut the locales to “get rid of whatever it is you’re afraid of.”

But prosecutors and the Florida Sheriffs’ Association objected that the cafés are a venue for crimes and illegal gambling and need to be shuttered.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the bill’s sponsor, rejected those arguments, noting that prosecutions have not resulted in a single conviction.

“I guess there’s a shortage of real crime out there so there’s a need to create some more so you can go prosecute it,” Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said, adding that traffic problems and robberies often take place at convenience stores.

“Should the next bill ban convenience stores, too?” he said.

After passing the regulatory measure by an 8-1 vote, the committee then took up a bill (SB 428) that would outlaw the facilities. That proposal is similar to one passed by a House committee earlier this week and mirrors the criminalization Gov. Rick Scott yesterday said he’d like lawmakers to impose.

But before the committee could vote on his bill, Sen. Steve Oelrich asked the committee to temporarily put it aside, fending off the panel possibly killing the measure. That would have put an end to the possibility of outlawing the cafés for the rest of the session.

It is unknown how many of the cafés are now operating in Florida, but estimates range from 800 to 1,200. And it’s uncertain how many employees work at the cafés. Opponents say there are as few as one worker per facility while one owner told the committee this morning she has 15 employees at her two Melbourne storefronts. A recent study by Florida State University’s Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis estimates an average 13 workers at each location and that the industry generates up to $750 million a year in sales.

The cafés operate under the state’s “sweepstakes” laws, which critics say were created to regulate giveaways by companies like Coca-Cola and MacDonald’s. Café customers purchase Internet time, which they can use to browse the Web or play free “sweepstakes” games, in which computer credit or time is won. Those credits can be redeemed for cash.

Authorities are now able to prosecute the facilities under state laws governing slot machines, said Joe Cocchiarella, who works for the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties. No cafés now exist in that region, Cocchiarella told the committee.

“We’ve prosecuted them. They’re closed,” he said.

But after intense questioning from Diaz de la Portilla, Cocchiarella conceded none of the operators had been convicted but that at least one had agreed to a settlement, forfeited $85,000 and left town.

Regulating the cafés will “bring some clarity, eliminate the marginal players and allow people to exercise their free will and free enterprise,” Diaz de la Portilla said.

Under his proposal, café operators will have to pay a $100 fee per terminal, an estimated $4 million for the state. Counties and municipalities would be able to impose additional fees and regulations or outright bans, as Palm Beach County recently imposed on new locations in unincorporated areas.

Oelrich said he knew he didn’t have the votes to get his bill passed and asked the committee to put it on hold to keep it afloat. He said he did not know what his next move would be.

“These establishments are couched as being friendly to veterans’ groups and charitable groups and I think nothing could be further from the truth,” said Oelrich, R-Cross City. “They’re a bane on our community and I don’t think they’re very healthy for the state of Florida. Why don’t we just face the facts? The idea that we’re going to through regulation give blessing to 1,400 more gambling establishments in the state of Florida is ludicrous.”

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9 Responses to “Internet café stand-off: Senate committee passes regulation, House and Scott want shut-down”

  1. Downtown Danny Says:

    More regulations of our lives from Republicans who campaign on “less regulation” and “less government” – when in reality their nothing but shills for business – some businesses want internet cafes closed so it protects their own monopoly – so they give money to crooked Republicans and use our laws to shut them down – no matter how many jobs it destroys.
    These cafes ARE HURTING NO ONE!

  2. sign o the times Says:

    yes downtown the hypocracy of our medicare defrauding governor is impossible to miss… got to pay to play in his sandbox

  3. Carol Says:

    Contortionist Rick Scott, nattering from both sides of his gaping pie-hole AGAIN to the amusement of his disenfranchised constitutes in the once great state of Florida. Next on the Governor’s agenda – outlawing dog tracks while simultaneously supporting organizations that permit dogs to run in circular paths for wagers.

  4. Ashley Tabboda Says:

    why in the world would you shut down the internet! you all will be hated by everyone because its like everyones life! atleast everyone who has internet uses it once a day! and especially kids will die with out it.

  5. Johnny Says:

    My neighbors are holding their weekly poker game tonight. Lawyers, doctors, judges and other professionals usually attend where they participate in the heinous and deleterious act of illegal gambling.
    Is there a hotline i should call so the state can get right on down there and arrest them all.
    I also hear this sort of thing happens all over the country on a regular basis.
    What is our world coming too?

  6. Sailing Diamonds Says:

    Its hard to believe in a free country so many different schools of thought exist to skirt the freedoms of the “small” business model , and continually Chanel what makes sense for the people into large erroneous debates of false positions.

  7. Downtown Danny Says:

    I’m setting up undercover video cameras at the 18th hole of every private golf course where these Republijerks play and we’ll see how many of them are GAMBLING.

    The next time you hear a Republican yapping about “stopping Obama and keeping government out of your life” – remember this – tiny little cafes around the state that are crime free (according to police call records) being attended by residents who spend a fractional amount of their own leisure money while enjoying themselves of their own free will ARE BEING TARGETED BY REPUBLICANS WHO WANT GOVERNMENT TO SHUT THEM DOWN!

  8. Downtown Danny Says:

    By the way – Republicans don’t want good job producing casinos in our state, they don’t want to legalize & tax pot even though you can buy it in every town in this nation,they want government in every womans life telling her she can’t have an abortion, they won’t legalize & tax prostitution but you can pick up any yellow pages in any town and find escort services, they want all bars to close at 2am or sooner if they can make them, IT SEEMS TO ME THAT REPUBLICANS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MOST OF THE INTRUSIONS INTO EVERYONE’S LIVES.

  9. DP Says:

    Indeed Senate committee wants to do well in their program, but it could fuel opposition, the pros and cons. Whatever it is, we see an action that could be accounted for. Only thing to note is the wisdom that can accommodate all parties.

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