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Internet cafes stir heated debate

TALLAHASSEE - State lawmakers are again wading into the debate over Internet sweepstakes cafes, even as local officials weigh their own proposed ordinance to ban the facilities in Hillsborough County. State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, has reintroduced a bill he sponsored this spring that would make illegal the cafes, an estimated 1,000 of which have multiplied across the state. The businesses, which often appear in strip malls, sell Internet time on computers. Customers purchase phone cards to participate in sweepstakes contests that resemble slot machines on a computer. Supporters and critics continue to debate whether the cafes represent an illegal expansion of gambling, since the state does not tax or closely regulate the cafe games as it does slot machines.
Rather, the cafes operate under the same "sweepstakes" law that authorizes McDonald's Monopoly games. The cafe games "are not gambling and are legal," said Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the Florida Internet Cafes Coalition, which formed at the end of this spring's legislative session and represents 200 to 300 cafes. "Internet cafes do not offer 'casino-style games,' " Bascom said. "They offer game promotions that are no different than peel-backs at fast food chains, which have been legal in Florida since 1971, as a marketing tool to promote the sale of retail products such as telephone minutes and, most recently, Internet time." Plakon, who described café games as "the crack cocaine of gambling" and their proliferation as a statewide "infestation," said there is no comparison. "I've never once heard of people going through their life savings, borrowing against their homes and losing all their money buying McDonald's scratch-off tickets," the legislator said. Plakon's bill failed this spring when a key Senate committee declined to take up the measure. Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, is again sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate. Meanwhile, Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, have filed competing measures that would regulate the cafes rather than prohibit them. Both bills would establish minimum state requirements while allowing local districts to pass their own ordinances governing the cafes. "I'm not opposed to them," said Fasano, adding that he has heard from some constituents they enjoy the games. "But if we're going to have them, let's make sure they're regulated." Fasano offered a similar bill that, like Plakon's proposed ban, failed during the past legislative session. But the issue is expected to gain more traction in 2012. Already, sponsors of another, more sweeping gambling bill — one that would permit casino resorts in Florida — have said they are open to addressing the cafes in that legislation as well. Bascom said the industry group is still reviewing the pending bills, "but we support any legislation that makes sure that regulations are in place so law enforcement and local governments can distinguish between the law-abiding facilities and the ones that are operating outside the law.  "We support any legislation that seeks to regulate and maintain businesses in Florida, and not outright ban them," Bascom said. Sen. Nancy Detert, who chairs the committee that rebuffed the Internet cafe bills in the spring, said that she, too, prefers the regulatory approach. Like it or not, Florida is now a gambling state, said Detert, R-Venice, and many seniors like the games. The cafes, she said, "have kind-of turned into the new bingo." The issue, meanwhile, continues to be a hot one in Hillsborough County, where the cafes have multiplied as adjacent counties such as Pinellas and Polk have moved to close them down. Hillsborough County Commissioner and former state Rep. Sandy Murman, who is pressing to ban the facilities, said that eight new cafes have opened in the county just in the last month. Murman said the Legislature must define and regulate the cafes clearly in state law. In the absence of state action, she said, she believes the county commission must act on the community's behalf. "If there's gong to be any type of gambling in your community, it's got to be approved by the Legislature and the voters," she said. "Because we're the recipients of the crime activity and everything else that happens when people get hooked on gambling." At Murman's request, the County commission canceled a workshop last week on a proposed ban and delayed a hearing scheduled originally for Wednesday. Murman said she pulled the workshop because the agenda had not included adequate representation from both sides. She expects the workshop and hearing to be rescheduled in the near future. County Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state senator, said he opposes expanding gambling in Florida. But he cautions the county to take a "pragmatic" approach to the cafes, noting that owners are filing lawsuits challenging the counties and local law enforcement that have shut them down. Crist agreed with Murman that the Legislature must take action. But until then, or until the courts define the cafes, he said, the county risks heavy legal costs by cracking down on the establishments on its own. "If after nine months, there's no legislative action or the courts haven't ruled, that's a different story. At that point, we've exercised due diligence," he said. "I just don't want to see us spend extra money taking on additional liability when it could be needless — just to make a point."

cwhittenburg@tampatrib.com (850) 222-8382

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