TALLAHASSEE — Strip-mall casinos — also known as Internet cafes or sweepstakes cafes — have popped up all over Florida in the past few years, offering easy Internet-based games of chance that have attracted tens of thousands of customers.
Now, their fate could be decided by a new Senate committee that's intended to determine the future of gambling in Florida, from Seminole casinos to so-called "destination resorts" to racetrack slot-machine parlors and Internet cafes.
"Internet cafes are cropping up by the hundreds in communities all over Florida, and local governments are struggling with it," said new Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who said the state had virtually "ignored" the issue.
Last session, the Senate talked about possibly regulating Internet cafes, while the House wrestled with a bill to completely outlaw them. But that bill's main sponsor, state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, lost his re-election bid two weeks ago. At the same time, Internet cafes poured more than $860,000 into legislative races, helping elect candidates who they hope will see them in a more favorable light.
"Our coalition continues to encourage increased regulation as opposed to an outright ban of Internet cafes," said Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for the Coalition of Florida's Internet Cafes, which has included operator Allied Veterans and Internet gambling software developer Arcola Systems.
Gaetz said he personally would vote to ban Internet cafes, but he wants the issue to be looked at as part of a broader review. Gaetz hasn't yet named the committee members, but they will likely spend the next year studying all of the state's gambling issues — what forms of gambling should be allowed, and where — and then introduce a comprehensive bill in 2014.
Committee members will take a look at "destination casino" resorts, like the multibillion-dollar Vegas-style facilities proposed by Malaysia-based Genting or Las Vegas Sands for South Florida. They'll look at "racinos" — the Miami-Dade and Broward slot-machine centers at pari-mutuel facilities — and recently passed referendums in Palm Beach, Lee, Gadsden and Washington counties seeking slots at pari-mutuels there.
They'll look at the state's racing and dog tracks, and jai alai frontons, most of which have poker rooms if not slot machines. And they'll examine the state's compact with the Seminole Tribe, a five-year, $1 billion deal that allows the tribe's casinos to offer black jack and other table games not currently allowed at Florida's pari-mutuels. It expires in 2015.
Gaetz said the state has no gambling policy, but rather a haphazard series of laws and agreements held together by "baling wire, chewing gum and Band-aids."
That's why, he said, he's set up the committee to review all gaming in Florida. "I think it's something we should do in a thoughtful and comprehensive way," Gaetz said.
Internet cafes — there are more than 1,000 of them, mostly tucked away in small strip shopping centers — will be a major part of that analysis.
They've received mixed reviews. Some try to ally themselves to veterans' charities. Some lawmakers have defended them as employers of veterans, providing needed jobs in a sour economy.
During a debate in a House committee last year, state Rep. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, who will be sworn into the Senate on Tuesday, said that he could not vote to shut down the cafes. "To take a job away from a veteran is something I cannot and will not do," he said.
But opponents such as Plakon and the group No Casinos have called the storefront casinos "predatory" and addictive — taking money from seniors and lower-income people who can't afford the losses — and urged lawmakers to shut them down.
At Internet cafes, customers buy a plastic card with a magnetic strip that purchases Internet time. The customer swipes the card at any of the café's computers to access Internet-based "sweepstakes" entries or "promotional giveaways." They can play video games that mimic a gambling wheel that you might find at a casino, such as a slot machine or roulette wheel.
Bascom said that like all industries, Internet cafes have their "bad apples." But, she said, the members of her group want to be regulated and operate within the law, just like pari-mutuel facilities and other state-sanctioned gambling facilities.
Some local governments, though, have already moved to outlaw them. In Central Florida, Seminole County is defending a ban in court. On Nov. 6, Orange County voters approved a charter amendment that would allow the county commission to ban the cafes throughout the county.
Last spring, Palm Beach County passed a one-year ban on any new Internet cafes.