Fo the last two years Palm Coast officials led by Mayor Jon Netts have been asking their legislative delegation in Tallahassee to give them a break on so-called internet cafes–the low-stakes gambling parlors cropping up all over Florida, including about a dozen of them in Palm Coast, usually in strip malls struggling for business. Netts made his pitch again last December to the delegation, which by then was reduced to two members: Sen. John Thrasher and Rep. Travis Hutson, though the entirety of Flagler County is now within each lawmaker’s jurisdiction, giving local demands more weight.
Thrasher heard Netts. He said Monday he will file a bill placing a moratorium on Internet cafes — a measure that could become the only major legislation dealing with gambling to be heard by the Legislature this year.
The comments from Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, came near the end of what is expected to be the final meeting of the Senate Gaming Committee until at least the end of the legislative session. Thrasher was responding to concerns among some lawmakers that the issue of Internet cafes might not be addressed in the session that begins March 5.
“There will be a bill that places a moratorium on Internet cafes for this year for consideration,” said Thrasher, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee.
Legislators grappled with the issue of Internet cafes, which critics argue are illegal games similar to slot machines, in 2012 but were unable to come to an agreement. Some lawmakers want the businesses banned altogether. Others simply want to regulate them.
Netts has been asking for some action either way. Palm Coast would be satisfied if the state decided to keep the gambling parlors legal, as long as it regulated them, more strictly and possibly taxed them, giving cities a new source of revenue, much the way the state regulated red-light cameras. The city would also welcome a ban on cafes, though local constituents have complained about that approach, too, including some politicians, because the parlors cater mostly to older, retired people. The allegation that the cafes are magnets of crime or seediness is so far without evidence, at least locally, and the cafes have generated jobs and some economic activity filling up storefronts that might otherwise have been left vacant.
Absent action from the state, Palm Coast took the matter in hand and itself regulated the parlors under its zoning code after imposing a moratorium to develop the new rules. The regulations were designed to make it more onerous for an internet cafe to operate without quite making it impossible. The city had no authority to ban them. Only the state can do that.
The internet cafe industry has fought regulation in the past, saying it offers computerized versions of legal sweepstakes.
It wasn’t clear how wide-ranging Thrasher’s moratorium would be. He didn’t elaborate on the proposal at the committee meeting and didn’t immediately return a message left at his office seeking comment. The pledge to file a bill could be limited to making good on a promise to Flagler County officials, without going much further than the bill’s filing. It would need a sponsor in the Florida House to be viable. In the interim, it may give local officials a window of time to negotiate with Thrasher over the contents of the proposal.
The Coalition of Internet Cafes, an industry group, reacted cautiously to the statement.
“From the beginning, we have advocated for increased regulation over an outright ban, agreed that technology has outpaced current law and that there may be some bad operators in the industry,” spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said in a statement. “Depending upon exact details of a proposed moratorium bill, if it allows for existing law abiding operators and employers to continue in their existing capacity, we believe our coalition will support legislation along these lines.”
Thrasher’s bill could be the only one dealing with gambling to be seriously considered by lawmakers. Legislative leaders have indicated that they want to put off dealing with most of the issues — including whether to allow casino-style “destination resorts” in Florida — until the 2014 legislative session.
Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, told lawmakers that the panel would commission a study and then spend time gathering public input, perhaps at a handful of hearings across the state.
“This is probably going to be the last time we meet this session,” Richter said.
That would also presumably cut off consideration of most gambling legislation, like a bill to allow pari-mutuel facilities to stop running dog races, which lose money, but continue to offer profitable games like poker.
Even Sen. Maria Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat who has sponsored similar legislation in the past, said it would have to wait for the broader gambling discussion.
“I wish we could do it this year,” she said. “But we can’t.”
–FlaglerLive and News Service of Florida