TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Internet cafes across Florida are dead, signed out of existence with the signature of Gov. Rick Scott.
The governor signed legislation Wednesday banning all electronic games that simulate slot machines or other casino-type games.
The bill took effect immediately so now police and prosecutors have the authority to shut down and make arrests at any cafes that continue to operate.
It looks as if many adult arcades are also impacted by the new law. It prohibits games of chance, limits winnings to 75 cents per play and does not allow players to accumulate winnings or receive gift cards.
Some arcade operators are considering retooling their machines to meet the new definitions for legal amusement games.
It's estimated about 1,000 Internet cafes employing 14,000 people are out of business as a result of the law.
The law creates a dilemma for Scott, whose main mission is to create jobs in Florida. Now he signs legislation that kills thousands of jobs.
"I think the House and Senate did the right thing to crack down on illegal gaming, especially in light of the Allied Veterans multi-state criminal conspiracy. They did the right thing and now they can back to working on my two priorities for the session: the $2,500 pay raise across-the-board for our classroom teachers and eliminating the sales tax on manufacturing equipment so we have more jobs."
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, carried the legislation in the Senate. He said the new law draws bright lines showing what gambling is in Florida, and what it isn't. He believes the Legislature allowed some of those lines to become blurred in recent years and Internet cafe operators took advantage of the situation.
"While I care about creating jobs, just like the governor does, none of us want to create jobs around illegal activity and I think everybody would agree with that. So hopefully some of these folks will retool their existing machines and put them in a posture where they're actually legal machines and I think they can do that."
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming island, co-sponsored the legislation. Bradley said Internet cafe operators insisted their games were not gambling, but it was clear to him the machines did offer gambling. He said the facilities misled people and were detrimental to the public interest.
"Internet cafes really were kind of Lone Rangers out there. They were not paying taxes, they were not regulated and so I'm quite confident in the direction that the state is taking."
The legislation to ban Internet cafes raced through the Legislature after a sweeping, three-year state and federal gambling investigation resulted in scores of arrests and the shutdown of about 50 Internet cafes operated by the group Allied Veterans of the World.
Former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll was forced to resign because she had worked for the group several years ago and said she did not want to become a distraction.
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said he was alarmed to discover how much money was involved in the Internet cafe industry and the scope of the scandal.
"This was a scandal of scandals. We had our lieutenant governor fall from grace on this one. I can't describe to you how surreal it was up here when I saw that and it just gave us all this feeling that we don't have a handle on these internet cafes and while I don't have a personal offense against them because I believe people be able to do what they want to do if they're not hurting others, in this case, they were hurting others."
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, calls the new law a "great product" and said it was needed years ago. He admits it was astonishing to find out how much cash was generated by Internet cafes.
"We always heard about the mom and pop Internet cafes where senior citizens went in and used them with pretty much just their pennies, nickels and dimes. Now we're finding out it's a lot bigger than that. It's not just the pennies, nickels and dimes. It's hundreds of millions of dollars that are being taken from consumers in this state with no regulation, absolutely zero regulation."
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, wishes lawmakers would have handled the issue more deliberately.
"It was a fast reaction to an incident and maybe we didn't give enough time and thought to it. At least we could've talked about it some more through the end of session because the bill, whatever the majority wanted, could have passed later. It didn't have to, but we rushed to judgment and in the consequences of that, jobs will probably be lost, seniors might not have access to arcades and we didn't adequately explore whether we could come up with a law that would require them to make these machines operate legally."
Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, looks ahead and says there will be opportunities to fix the law if it unfairly hurts legitimate businesses.
"We have a number of Floridians who are out there that will be impacted by this, that will lose jobs. We have a number of businesses that may have challenges as it relates to them being able to move forward. I'm hopeful, as with every piece of legislation that we pass, we have glitch bills and as those issues are raised, that we will be able to address those issues and make sure that we're doing what's in the best interest of Florida."