Delray Beach sisters Anita Silverman and Tobie Berg
A proposed ban on Internet cafes that would also shutter adult arcades is headed to the Senate floor for a vote as early as Tuesday over the objections of dozens of seniors who traveled from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to plead with lawmakers to leave them alone.
The proposed ban, already passed by the Florida House, is a swift reaction to a a multi-state sting last month that resulted in 57 arrests and prompted Jennifer Carroll to resign as lieutenant governor. Authorities accused Allied Veterans of the World, a charitable organization Carroll consulted for while a state representative, of racketeering and money laundering charges associated with operating a $300 million illegal gambling ring.
The proposal would ban slot machine-like games at storefront gaming centers, including those that cater to seniors who testified Tuesday morning that they spend hours playing the games for as little as $20.
And, the seniors and arcade operators said, the amusement centers give them a place to and people to hang out with instead of spending their days – and nights – alone.
Many of the seniors were from Port St. Lucie. They complained that the arcades are the only entertainment for them in their community.
“We have lunch. We have dinner. We celebrate our birthday there. So if they close, a lot of us are going to be very lonely,” one Port St. Lucie resident said.
Mike Cannon, who owns Mardi Gras arcade in Port St. Lucie, told the committee that the arcades, which operate under a 30-year-old statute, shouldn’t be punished because of the Allied Veterans wrongdoing.
“You had a big scandal on your hands and we had nothing to do with it,” Cannon said. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We paid our taxes. We do everything by the law and we’ve never had a problem.”
Sen. John Thrasher, the bill sponsor, explained that the measure (SB 1030) would not impact children’s arcades such as Dave and Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese.
That drew the wrath of Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association, who owns several adult arcades in Broward County.
“This is nowhere for them to go. They eat lunch together. They eat dinner together. It has nothing to do about the games. It’s their clubhouse,” Fontaine said, referring to dozens of elderly audience members, some with canes or in wheelchairs, and many of whom were clad in white T-shirts imprinted with “Don’t kill amusement centers” in red.
“I think it’s a disgrace that we will take care of the children’s community and not take care of the senior community.”
Delray Beach resident Anita Silverman, 82, traveled on a bus organized by the association along with about 80 others to attend the committee meeting early Tuesday morning.
She said she is a widow who enjoys the camaraderie of the Atlantic Arcade less than a mile from her house.
“Come Saturday night, I’m all by myself. Saturday night is very lonely,” she said.
The ban will shut down about half of the 300 American Legion halls now open throughout the state, Bob Kiley, American Legion District 6 commander, said. Many of the halls run adult arcades, but all of the proceeds go to charity, Kiley said.
The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved the proposal even as several members expressed concern that it cast too broad a net.
“I would like to see…a carve out just like we gave Chuck E. Cheese bingo,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.
The arcades pay 4 percent of their gross proceeds to the state and 6 percent sales tax, Sobel pointed out.
“They’re a legitimate business and there’s unintended consequences by putting them into a different category. I don’t think we intended to do that. If there needs to be more regulation…so be it. This is the difference between apples & oranges.”
Acknowledging that the proposal may cast “too wide a net,” Sen. Jeremy Ring chided the arcade operators for fiercely opposing previous efforts to impose stricter regulations on them.
“We don’t need to be here today. This could have been worked out years ago.
But it is here today because there has only been vehement opposition and never any proactive response to try to work together to create the proper regulations that I’m convinced do not exist,” Ring, D-Margate, said.
But Thrasher insisted the bill is designed to close a “gray area” in law exposed by the Allied Veterans sting.
“I don’t believe we’re putting anybody out of business. If… because of existing loopholes…they have moved into areas they shouldn’t have moved into…they may have to adjust some of the games that are out there,” Thrasher said. “But what this bill does is tighten up the gambling laws. I’m not going to back off.”