Florida bill would outlaw electronic games found in bars, malls

5:05 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 Politics
The Florida Legislature started its 2018 session Jan. 9. (Scott Keeler/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Controversial electronic games found in bars, strip malls and restaurants would be outlawed under a measure approved Tuesday by a House panel.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Scott Plakon, is aimed at devices known as “pre-reveal games” that critics, including state gambling regulators, argue are unregulated slot machines.

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Proponents contend the devices don’t violate prohibitions against slots because the computer games include a “preview” feature that advises players of the outcome of the games.

But a Tallahassee judge ruled last year that the electronic games — known as “Version 67,” produced by Blue Sky Games and leased by Jacksonville-based Gator Coin Inc. — violate a state law banning slot machines in most parts of Florida.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper originally sided with the manufacturer and the distributor of the machines but reversed himself after the Seminole Tribe asked that he reconsider the decision. Blue Sky and Gator Coin sued the state after investigators with the Division of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided the games were effectively illegal slot machines.

The Seminoles asked the Legislature to address the games or risk having the state lose millions of dollars in a revenue-sharing agreement that gives the tribe the exclusive rights to operate slots outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

On Tuesday, the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee approved a proposal that would outlaw the games, over the objections of Gator Coin owner Kathy Fanning and others who operate similar businesses.

The House panel voted 9-6 to approve the measure (HB 1367), which faces another committee before heading to the floor for a full vote. A similar proposal (SB 1770) has not been vetted yet by a Senate committee.

Fanning said her “little industry” is “so misunderstood.”

Fanning said her company, founded in 1946, and other similar businesses supply jukeboxes, pool tables and dart boards to restaurants and bars.

“And, oh by the way, we have a new game if you’d like to try it,” she said, referring to the “pre-reveal” games, which appear similar to slot machines but operate differently.

“We went through the court, and we did explain there is no chance involved in the game. We’re just trying to stay relevant. We’re just trying to stay in business,” she said.

Plakon, a Longwood Republican, said the Legislature should clarify that the games are illegal, although the Fannings’ case is under appeal.

“These things should not be decided by the courts. These things should be decided by the Legislature,” Plakon argued.

Plakon called the pre-reveal games a “twist” exploiting a loophole in the law.

“To me, it doesn’t even pass the laugh test,” he said.

But Bryan DeMaggio, a Jacksonville lawyer who represents Fanning and her husband, disputed Plakon’s characterization of the games.

“These machines are not a game or a trick or a ruse to get around the statute,” DeMaggio said.

The two main “hallmarks of a slot machine” under state law are “chance and unpredictability,” DeMaggio said.

In the pre-reveal games, players always know the outcome of the next game. But, critics argue, they may not know the outcome of the games after that.

“If you know the outcome, why put money into the machine?” asked Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican who is a gambling industry consultant.

“Entertainment. Simply entertainment,” DeMaggio said.

“So it’s entertaining to know you’re going to lose?” Fine persisted.

“For some people, it may be. I don’t pretend to know the psychology,” DeMaggio responded, adding that some bar patrons may play the games “to kill time.”