On April 10th, gambling teetotalers in Tallahassee erupted in a burst of high-fives and back slaps, over their success in banning all internet cafes in Florida. This was the culmination of a dust-up early in 2013, when 57 internet-cafe operators were charged with racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, and possession of slot machines. Those indicted are accused of misusing a veterans charity, Allied Veterans, and illegally running gambling operations under the guise of internet cafes. The event led to the resignation of Republican Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who once provided public-relations services for the charity.
This perfect media storm was a God-send for anti-gambling crusader Scott Plakon to re-introduce his two-year-old pet bill to ban all internet cafes. Governor Rick Scott, admitting it didn't solve Florida's gambling problem and would probably have unintended consequences, quickly signed it just to get past the trivial issue. Here's a quick run-down of Floridians who are now benefiting from the removal of all the so-called "strip mall casinos".
The conveniences of having a favorite slot machine next to the nail salon, or a poker game around the corner, must have really been putting a damper on revenue raked in by casino cruise ships, and big gambling googleplexes on distant Indian reservations. Who needs those boring old internet cafes, when now you can go to the Hard Rock Cafe instead?
Computer simulations of slot machines were giving original one-armed bandits in Florida a real run for their money, too. Really? Well, no, not really. Politicians are toasting each other for taking down 1,000 internet cafes that were combining for $1 billion in annual revenue. To keep their spirits up, they'd better not look at this document, which shows that just six facilities in South Florida raked in almost $900 million just in April of this year, and just in slots. Competing parimutuels and frontons are in a race to gobble up simulcast rights from tracks all over the country this summer. With the internet cafes out of the way, it is shaping up to be a very good year for them. Many internet cafes were locally owned, where profits were more likely to be reinvested in Florida. Instead, gambling corporations, immune to Tallahassee's prohibitionists, ship the cash back to stay in Vegas, or overseas.
Internet cafes have a much more evenly matched rivalry with Florida's Lotto scratch-off tickets and numbers games. The Florida Lottery netted just $1.31 billion in FY 2011-2012 for education funding, and, like internet cafes, is distributed throughout the more conservative and sparsely populated areas of the state. From the front door of most convenience stores selling Powerball, you could now throw a rock and hit the darkened window of a closed internet cafe. While Lotto is centrally organized and supported by the state, the internet cafe owners were disjointed and not well organized for this year's legislative session. The Allied Veterans controversy took them by surprise, and included accusations that internet cafe owners were trying to affect their legal fate through monetary contributions to political candidates. To sweeten the victory for gambling opponents, Mega Millions debuts in Florida this May 15.
Before the brief history of the Florida internet cafe, Florida had very strict laws restricting gaming promotions. There were concerns that this might discourage McDonalds, for example, from including the state in its popular Monopoly game. Then came Florida Statute 849.094:
"The operator of a game promotion in which the total announced
value of the prizes offered is greater than $5,000 shall file with
the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services a copy of
the rules and regulations of the game promotion and a list of all
prizes and prize categories offered at least seven days before the
commencement of the game promotion."
Gambling experts saw an opportunity to use this new loophole for gaming promotions in store fronts. When a local village banned one of these storefront sweepstakes businesses, it would move down the street to the next zip code, pass Go, and collect $200. Now with the strip-mall casinos gone, poor seniors can probably afford more Happy Meals.
For what it's worth, one apparent former employee of an internet cafe in South Florida posted, "I thought the law was for everyone, this is discrimination and we lost our work with this new law, more than 10,000 people living on unemployment and food stamps right now."
It's feasible that 10,000 people lost their jobs as Florida law enforcement went about shutting down all the internet cafes. A good portion of them probably found other work right away. For those that didn't, the champions of gambling prohibition will assure you that it's worth it for them not to work, and for you to pay them.
The new law sets a maximum value on prizes - $0.75. This clearly puts Chuck E. Cheese's on notice, where you can win many items valued in the $20 range, such as a fiber-optic lamp that changes colors. To lawmakers and law enforcement, so worried about the poor and elderly being taken advantage of, it seems that teaching our kids the thrills of gambling is apparently not that big a deal. However, the spirit of this law is to only shut down the kinds of arcades that senior citizens happen to like, where the machines have video displays with way too much green felt in the background. Or, maybe it's plain old age discrimination. Just a hunch.