TALLAHASSEE | With the failure of legislation that would have allowed three mega-casinos in South Florida, the legality of so-called “Internet cafes” has become this
session’s new gambling debate.
Gov. Rick Scott has made clear he supports a House bill that would make the sweepstakes centers illegal. Legislation in the Senate would regulate but not ban them. That bill opens a clear rift between the two chambers, but seems bogged down in committee.
There appears to be at least a clear verbal rift, too, between Scott and his lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, over the estimated $1 billion industry.
Carroll’s Clay County-based consulting firm has done work for Jacksonville-based Allied Veterans of the World Inc., which runs 39 sweepstakes centers in Northeast Florida and across the state. While still a state House member, she appeared in a television commercial promoting the group in 2010.
But with her boss clearly on the record, and the centers’ legality splitting the Legislature, it is unclear where Carroll now stands.
The Times-Union asked the governor’s office on Tuesday if Carroll agreed with Scott, or maintained the pro-regulation stance she held as a lawmaker. It released a statement from Carroll one day later that did not clearly provide an answer.
“I share Governor Scott’s view,” the statement said, “that illegal operators must shut down.”
Except that’s not Scott’s view. He has called for all operators to be shut down, a fact the statement did not address.
Because state law is ambiguous on the legality, it is unclear what “illegal operators” means. When the newspaper tried three more times for clarification, spokeswoman Jackie Schutz would not provide further comment.
In 2010, while representing Duval and Clay counties in the House, Carroll filed a bill to clarify that the sweepstakes centers are legal. It was pulled days after being filed because Carroll said a staffer “erroneously” filed it.
Her intent, she told the Times-Union at the time, was to define “regulatory requirements for this industry,” not to clarify its legal status.
“While I was a representative in the Florida Legislature, it was very important to me that Internet cafes were regulated,” read Carroll’s statement this week. “This does not imply that I supported the machines, but that if they were going to continue to operate in Florida, they needed proper oversight.”
This session, supporters of regulations have tied the issue to the economy. Regulation bill sponsor Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, argued that shutting down the sweepstakes centers would cost Florida up to 13,000 jobs, and $4 million in fees his bill proposes levying.
Meanwhile, first-in-the-state regulations passed by Jacksonville in 2010 are facing legal scrutiny.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Jim Lewis has asked a judge if Jacksonville’s ordinance — which banned new centers and charges fees for each machine at existing ones — are legal. He is representing the first three companies to be cited under the regulations.
The city points to the fact that state law is silent on the legality, the same ambiguity lawmakers are trying to clarify this year.
“The city has the authority to go out and enforce this law against alleged violators,” said Cherry Shaw, assistant general counsel for Jacksonville.
In Tallahassee, it is unclear if lawmakers will be able to clarify the issue this legislative session. The House’s bill to outlaw has passed three committee stops and is set for a floor vote.
The Senate bill, though, has passed just one stop. It is in the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, which does not have another meeting scheduled. The only Northeast Florida legislator on the committee is Republican Evelyn Lynn, whose district includes parts of Clay and Putnam counties.
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