A measure that would outlaw any electronic games that look like slot machines — and possibly shutter storefront gaming centers, including arcades that cater to seniors — is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott, who said he will sign it into law.
The Florida Senate approved the measure 36-4 late Thursday afternoon, with three Palm Beach County senators — Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, Joe Abruzzo, D-Royal Palm Beach and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach — and Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, voting against the bill .
The swift action on the ban comes just weeks after a federal investigation into Allied Veterans of the World resulted in 57 arrests and prompted Jennifer Carroll to resign as lieutenant governor. Authorities accused Allied Veterans of running a $300 million illegal gambling ring posing as a veterans’ charity.
Proponents of the ban say it simply clarifies what is already in state law.
“There is nothing in this bill that is going to close down legitimate businesses. This is about closing down unscrupulous operators who have found loopholes in the statutes,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who sponsored the bill (HB 155).
But Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, argued that the 60 senior arcades in Palm Beach County and those elsewhere in the state, mostly in areas with retirees, were not caught up in the Internet café dragnet and that the ban is too broad.
Seniors at the arcades say they spend between $5 and $20 a day to gamble on machines that look like slot machines.
The new law bans any machines that are “games of chance” and not “games of skill,” except at Indian casinos or Miami-Dade and Broward pari-mutuels where the Legislature has authorized slot machines.
Arcade operators like LeBlanc insisit their machines are “games of skill” because they are interactive and players can pause the games and continue play later.
“We’re bringing in people and places that have not broken the law and if they have it’s not up to me as a senator to say that they are,” said Sachs, a former prosecutor. “Until the day the DOJ goes in and seizes the senior arcades…, I find nothing wrong with them.”
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said Palm Beach County seniors visited his office “truly crying… about changing their lifestyle.”
Abruzzo said he supports regulating gaming centers and shutting down illegal gambling activity.
“But there has been a public outcry in Palm Beach County” among seniors over the arcades, he said. “This, to many of them, is their everyday way of life, their social entertainment.”
Under the proposal, games at all kinds of arcades, including family game centers like Boomer’s in Boca Raton, will have to be coin operated. Prizes will be limited to a value of 75 cents, and the arcades will no longer be allowed to give gift cards as awards.
Those two components alone will severely impact the senior arcades, said Jean LeBlanc, who owns two Palm Beach County senior arcades who was in the Capitol for the Senate vote on Thursday.
“I’m in shock,” said LeBlanc, a Boynton Beach resident originally from Canada. “The hardest thing is to tell the seniors that they won’t have anything else to do.”
Arcade owners launched a public relations campaign aimed at exempting them from the all-out ban on gaming centers usually located in strip malls. The Florida Arcade and Bingo Assocation bused about 80 elderly customers from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to the Capitol on Tuesday to plead with a Senate committee to leave the senior arcades alone.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, tried to amend the bill to allow the machines to accept dollar bills or swipe cards like those in use by family entertainment centers. He argued that all vending machines now accept dollar bills and few people carry coins.
“We’re in the 21st century. We’re going back?” Garcia said. “In order to pass this out we’re saying we’ll come back and fix it. How many times have we heard that… and we never come back and fix it.”
But Thrasher argued that allowing currency or swipe cards would “create an additional loophole” instead of closing gray areas in gambling laws.
Al Kress, the owner of a Benchmark Games, Inc., located in Hypoluxo, manufacture arcade games used at places like Chuck E. Cheese and Dave and Buster’s. His factory employs 105 people, Kress said.
The proposed law could confuse people and scare local governments away from allowing any amusement centers to open.
“I’m concerned that people are going to confuse machines at family entertainment centers with some of the adult arcades. They’re going to say you’ve got the machines in the family entertainment centers, aren’t they similar to the machines in the adult arcades? We know that they’re not. But the public is not an educated public that knows what the difference is between a game and game of chance,” Kress said.
Kress said that limiting the value of the prizes will likely affect business at all of the arcades.
“Nobody’s going to go there for a 75 cent prize,” he said.