TALLAHASSEE -- Despite pleas from senior citizens and veterans groups, the Florida Senate moved closer to outlawing all slot machine-like games at Internet cafes, Miami's maquinitas and South Florida's adult arcades.
For years, operators have used a loophole in the state's arcade and sweepstakes laws to operate new computer games that mimic slot machines while Florida legislators did nothing to regulate or monitor the growing industry.
On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee unanimously passed a bill that will make it easier for law enforcement to shut down the machines that legislators say are already illegal. The House overwhelmingly passed a virtually identical bill two weeks ago.
"What this is really about is gambling," said State Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the sponsor of the senate bill. "Unfortunately, we have let things slip through the cracks and let things go
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on for too long."
The measure is a swift response to a federal and state corruption probe that has led to the arrest of 57 people associated with Allied Veterans of Florida, the chain of gaming centers that purported to operate a charity but which police say was a gambling and money laundering scam. The indictments led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had once worked as a consultant for Allied Veterans, and has resulted in the push by legislators to shut down the questionable machines.
The bill updates the definition of slot machines, and clarifies that sweepstakes games must be incidental games -- not continuous play. It requires that coin-operated games must involve an element of skill, and players are limited to prizes valued at 75 cents and may not be accumulated over time, or exchanged for gift cards and cash.
Thrasher said the bill is intended to clarify existing law and not shut down adult or children's arcades, such as Dave & Busters and Chuck E. Cheese. He vowed that he "will not back down" from his position that if the machines are illegal now, they will not be carved into a loophole.
"The bill does not keep charities from conducting drawings and raffles -- just as they have been able to do for years," he said.
He said that if any of the arcades have installed the illegal machines "they'll have to adjust."
Owners of the machines say they are games of skill and do not operate like slot machines. They warn that the legislation will ruin the business model for their entertainment centers and close the door to thousands of seniors.
Gale Fontaine, of Lighthouse Point, who is president of Gale Fontaine Amusements and the Bingo and Arcade Association, scolded committee members for turning their backs on the senior citizens who elected them to office.
"This is somewhere for them to go, to be with people of their own age," said Gale Fontaine, of Lighthouse Point, who is president of Gale Fontaine Amusements and the Bingo and Arcade Association. "We give our food away for free. We them with a place to go to a safe place -- no drinking, no smoking. If they wanted to gamble, they'd go to a casino."
Ledia Herrera, 69, of Hialeah, told the committee she doesn't go to the local senior arcade to gamble but to socialize. "We don't spend much money. We just have a good time," Herrera said. "We have lunch. We have dinner. We celebrate our birthday there. If they close, a lot of seniors are going to be very lonely."
But experts contend these so-called "cherry master" machines are computerized slot machines that are set up by owners with no guaranteed payout or customer protections.
"Every machine is rigged to cheat the customer," said Robert Sertell, a New Jersey-based slot machine expert hired by law enforcement to inspect the machines.
Sertell has created training manuals to teach law enforcement how to detect the payout levels and win rates on arcade and maquinitas machines. Because each machine can be adjusted, they are not games of skill as operators contend.
State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, urged the committee to consider carving out a loophole that would exclude the adult arcades, which have been operating gaming machines under a 28-year-old provision in state law.
"If there needs to be more regulation on this group, so be it," she said.