FL Legislature's haste on casino-style gambling ban misfires

May 23, 2013 

The Legislature's rush to judgment on Internet cafes in the wake of a massive scandal has led to unintended consequences predictable when the bill passed so swiftly.

The knee-jerk overreach came after the 57 owners and operators of Allied Veterans of the World were charged with running a sham charity as cover for a $300 million gambling, racketeering and money-laundering scheme. Former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned over her past connections to the organization, and lawmakers scrambled to unload more than a million dollars in campaign cash from the group.

Their haste is laying waste to harmless entertainment. Now Chuck E. Cheese, Dave and Buster's -- even Disney World -- could be operating games that are breaking the law but that's still uncertain.

Even AARP is blocking Floridians from entering cash-reward contests over fears of breaking the law. In attempting to close loopholes and crack down on gambling, lawmakers eliminated an exception for nonprofit organizations that operate sweepstakes -- like AARP. But that threw out the baby with the Allied Veterans-tainted bathwater.

By banning illegal gambling cafes with casino-style slot machines, the sweeping new law includes rules that encompass restaurants, skating rinks, bowling alleys and other establishments with arcade games.

One new requirement is all amusement games or machines must be based on skill, not luck, with the law's language banning "casino-style games in which the outcome is determined by factors unpredictable by the player or games in which the player may not control the outcome of the game through skill." Whether the Legislature intended to bar any games of chance is doubtful, but nobody can answer with certainty.

Compounding this confusing situation for established and legitimate business around the state is the utter lack of definitive answers from any state agency on the legality of their enterprises. These businesses are left to interpret the law's provisions -- and fear the potential fallout.

As one state agency after another passed the buck on enforcement, Florida has essentially left that responsibility up to local law enforcement. Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube delivered letters to Internet and sweepstakes cafes a month ago warning about pending enforcement for those places failing to comply.

Florida residents who objected to the casino-style machines had been clamoring for legislative clarity on the state's loophole-riddled gambling laws for years. Now, compelled to action by scandal instead of constituents, the Legislature once again adopted a law of unintended consequences -- a well-established tradition in Tallahassee. This law needs to be modified to clear up the confusion and safeguard bona fide enterprises.

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