Bill filed in Florida Senate would clarify Internet cafe ban

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Sen. Kelli Stargel wants to help amusement arcade owners who are uncertain about the implications of last year’s law that put Internet cafes out of business.

The Lakeland Republican filed a motion to “clarify” the intent of Florida lawmakers, who quickly pushed through a bill last year banning Internet cafes and “senior arcades,” which many consider storefront casinos. 

Stargel’s proposal goes a bit further, by addressing restrictions on the books that regulate amusement games but are rarely enforced.

According to a decades-old state law, arcades must have a minimum of 50 coin-operated machines. Prizes are restricted to a value of 75 cents, which Stargel says has not changed since 1967.

If approved, the bill would eliminate the minimum number of machines and allow machines operating with dollar bills, slugs or “swipe” cards. It would also increase prizes to $5.75 — roughly the value of 75 cents in 1967.

Bowling alley operators, hoteliers and various retail stores are asking for clarification on the legality of their machines. 

“This really has nothing to do with gaming,” Stargel said. “It has to do with amusement machines.”

Arcades like Chuck E. Cheese’s, Dave & Buster’s and smaller facilities will then know what they “can and cannot do,” she added.

Stargel filed the motion late Wednesday to raise the limit on directly dispensed prizes from skill-based games to $50.

Last spring’s Internet cafe ban came about after a gambling sting operation that resulted in 57 arrests and the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. At one time, Carroll was a consultant for Allied Veterans of the World, the non-profit at the center of the racketeering investigation. Carroll was never charged with a crime.

The recommended changes will not have an impact on the ban on storefront casinos, Stargel said.

“I don’t think there’s any way you can construe it to opening the door up for those,” she added. “We’re just clarifying that little piece that’s already exempted because it’s not gaming. It’s amusement.”

Brian Neslund, owner of the Lakeland Family Fun Center, said the proposal should clear up confusion for arcade operators, putting them at ease by raising claw-machine prize limits from 75 cents to $50.

“Essentially what we’d have to put in would be very cheap-quality prizes which is what everyone complains about when they come into an establishment for kids,” said Neslund. “The prizes of 75 cents are not things that would entice people to play the games. People don’t want to play for a 75-cent prize.”

Sen. Garrett Richter, chair of the Gaming Committee, supports the concept of fixing “unintended consequences” of the Internet cafe ban, either through Stargel’s bill or in an omnibus gambling reform currently in preparation.

“I’m ready to embrace solutions to those problems,” the Naples Republican added.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.