TALLAHASSEE, FL -- Florida's House on March 22 approved a measure (HB 155) that would alter the language used to describe slot machines and other gaming devices which a player could use to win money. By changing the definition of a slot machine, lawmakers are hoping to close a loophole that has allowed Internet cafés to stay open and prosper in Florida. However, the measure will also -- unintentionally and significantly -- impact the legitimate amusement sector.
The state Senate is expected to pass a companion bill in the first week of April. But first, a Senate committee will convene on Thursday, March 28, to discuss the measure. So customers and operators of Florida's adult arcades began rallying against the measure in towns across the state on Sunday. They're carrying signs saying "we are not sweepstakes, take us off their bill" and "arcades pay taxes" and "arcades are not Internet cafés."
While the intention of the anti-sweepstakes measure is to crack down on Internet gaming centers, it reaches much further than originally intended, according to concerned amusement industry members in Florida. The bill states that prize-awarding machines cannot accept bills or smart cards, nor can they award gift cards or prizes deemed greater than 75¢ in value.
Its objective is to clarify the ambiguity that has allowed sweepstakes café operators to allegedly skirt the law by prohibiting businesses from giving out gift cards or other cash equivalents as prizes. But this casts a much wider net. The law's language would also make other operations illegal, including adult arcade offerings, redemption games and skill cranes, among other equipment types.
Michael Wolf, an attorney for the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association, says if the measure passes in its current form, the amusement industry will be fundamentally changed. "Many machines will only be allowed to sell credits by coin. Prizes in cranes and other equipment would be limited to items valued at 75¢ or less, and operators will be forbidden to offer iTunes cards and other gift cards -- which is very common today."
The bill could also affect amusement-only games like video and pinball by limiting the amount of free credits allowed. Tournaments hosted on videogames would also be impacted, Wolf warned.
PHOTO: Operators and customers of "senior" arcades in Florida wave signs saying "arcades are not Internet cafes" during rally on Sunday in Pompano Beach. Gatherings like this are taking place all over Florida, where a bill banning sweepstakes videogames will also repress adult and amusement redemption operations.
Industry watchers are particularly concerned about the multifunction cashless card systems in use at such amusement chains as Dave & Buster's and Chuck E. Cheese's, as well as at the many independent family entertainment centers operating in Florida. Redemption equipment, which represents the majority of games in these locations, would no longer be allowed to use card readers. "The amusement industry has spent millions of dollars installing these card systems," Wolf said. "This bill, if not changed, could send the industry back to the dark ages, or let's say the 'coin' age."
Why the rush to push through the ban on PC-based sweepstakes games? About a dozen centers linked to Allied Veterans of the World, a Jacksonville-based charity group accused of collecting millions of dollars for itself and awarding little money to veterans, were raided and forced to shut down in mid-March; 57 people associated with the group were arrested in a federal racketeering and money-laundering probe. These locations were owned by charities that authorities have accused of being fronts for illegal gambling. The case even prompted the resignation of Florida's lieutenant governor.
There are an estimated 1,000+ storefront gaming centers, many in strip malls, operating in the state. There are only about 220 adult arcades, sources tell VT, which have been legal in Florida since 1984 and peaked at about 350.
"The Legislature is changing the gambling statute just to get rid of Internet cafés," Wolf said.
Michael Wolf can be emailed at email@example.com. More information about the amusement industry's response to the Florida measure can be had from John Sasso at (954) 225- 0827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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