Tallahassee, Florida -- State lawmakers are moving at break-neck speed to ban Internet cafes in Florida following a gambling investigation that resulted in nearly 60 arrests last week and prompted the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll.
On Monday, the Senate Gaming Committee unanimously passed legislation from Sen. John Thrasher that would ban Internet cafes across Florida. He believes Internet cafes are operating illegally by exploiting a loophole in state law to operate online slot machines.
Sen. Thrasher originally filed a bill to place a moratorium on any new Internet cafes in Florida, but he changed his mind after last week's arrests.
"We cannot wait another year and instead of a moratorium, which is the bill that I originally had introduced to stop further proliferation of what I believed illegal Internet cafes, I think we need an outright ban. The legislature has for several years been dealing with this issue. This is not something new that has just all of a sudden come up, but it's something that has risen to the level of our concern since the events of last week and it has to do with the proliferation of Internet cafes."
The committee's chairman Sen. Garrett Richter says the extensive gambling sweep that shut down nearly 50 Internet cafes shows the issue needs immediate attention.
"The events last week made two things very clear to both myself and Sen. Thrasher. Number one, we cannot wait a year to address Internet cafes and number two, that instead of a moratorium we need an outright ban."
But supporters of the facilities pleaded with senators to consider the economic and social impact of the cafes. They said Internet cafes employ about 13,000 people statewide and patrons enjoy a family-like environment at the businesses.
Some wore T-shirts asking for regulation of cafes, rather than an outright ban.
Dustin Luer spoke in support of Internet cafes, saying Florida is still struggling with high unemployment.
"How are you justifying letting 13,000 employees who are paying taxes that aren't going to be able to find other jobs, how do you justify putting them out of work and it's not just the impact on those 13,000 people. They have kids."
Lori-Ann Chiusano said a lot of seniors find a family-like environment at the cafes.
"Our relationship doesn't just stop there with these people. We visit them in the hospital, we send flowers, when they lose a spouse we go to their memorial service and they're back there with us getting over their loss, because this is the time of their lives when they have to go through really hard stuff like this."
Linda Padsick, of an Internet café called Telesweeps of Clearwater, scolded lawmakers for saying the cafes take advantage of poor and elderly people.
She denied that's the case and asked lawmakers to pass new regulations instead of shutting down the businesses.
"It's very offensive to me. I work with these people every day and you're telling me I'm taking advantage of them. That's not the issue. I know there's a fine line between gambling and gaming. All we're asking is that you slow it down. If there needs to be regulations, then regulate it. You have places that you say it's OK. We're just asking for that same opportunity."
Sen. Richter said the Legislature is not aiming to shut down legitimate operators.
"We are not attempting to close down any of these legitimate business models. We are attempting to close down illegitimate businesses that look like a gambling operation, act like a gambling operation, sound and operate like a gambling operation yet insist they are not. If it's a duck, we're calling it a duck. They are illegal."
A House committee passed a similar bill last week and the legislation is on a fast track in that chamber. Sen. Thrasher says he expects the Senate version to move forward a little slower.