A month ago, Internet cafes were like countless other issues floating around the Capitol. They were important to some people, but hardly a top priority.
Then came raids on Internet cafes across the state, charges of racketeering and illegal gambling and — most jarring — the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll because of her past ties to the industry.
Suddenly, ridding the state of Internet cafes became a big issue. And Thursday, little more than three weeks after the investigation became public, the Senate gave final approval to a bill that likely will shutter hundreds of what critics call “storefront casinos.”
“There is nothing in this bill that is going to close legitimate businesses,” said Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who has helped spearhead the issue. “This is about closing down unscrupulous operators who have found loopholes in the statutes.”
The Senate voted 36-4 to pass the measure (HB 155), which came after the House earlier voted 108-7 to approve it. Gov. Rick Scott’s office has already said he will sign the bill.
Internet cafes have opened in strip malls across the state in recent years, raking in money and trying to fend off criticism that they offer computerized versions of slot machines. But until now, lawmakers could not agree on how to deal with the industry, with some seeking to ban the businesses and others pushing for regulation.
The move this year to shut down the cafes happened at relative warp speed — at least in the legislative world. And that played a part in criticism from some lawmakers, who argued that the bill was too broad and would affect arcades that are popular with seniors.
All four senators who voted against the bill — Joe Abruzzo, D-Royal Palm Beach, Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and Jeremy Ring, D-Margate — represent Palm Beach and Broward counties, where many seniors congregate and play games at such arcades.
“The seniors, as long as they believe they (arcades) could get shut down and they’re worried about it, I can’t support it,” Ring said of the bill.
But supporters of the measure said it is designed to stop illegal gambling and that shutting down Internet cafes will be good for the state.
“For far too long, strip mall casinos have deteriorated Florida’s quality of life,” David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement emailed to reporters after the Senate vote.
A round-up via the News Service of Florida.
BACK TO SCHOOL: While lawmakers rushed to get rid of Internet cafes, most major legislation is a harder slog. And Thursday, the House approved an education bill (HB 867) that has created deep divisions.
The proposal, which has become known as the “parent trigger” bill, would give parents more power to determine what happens with failing public schools. It has drawn fierce opposition from Democrats and groups such as the Florida Education Association, which contend it is designed to help for-profit operators of charter schools.
But the more immediately important question, at least politically, is how Republican lawmakers view the issue. A similar bill died last year in the Senate, amid opposition from some Republicans. And though the House voted 68-51 to approve this year’s version, seven members of the GOP majority crossed party lines to oppose it.
The Senate version (SB 862) cleared its first committee Monday and is expected to go to two more committees before heading to the floor. President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, indicated that changes in the makeup of the Senate and changes in the bill could lead to its passage.
“So the fact that we have 15 new senators and the fact that the bill is not the same means that I think last year’s vote is not necessarily a telltale of how the vote will come out this year,” Gaetz said.
But senators can expect fierce pressure from groups such the Florida Education Association, which released a statement after the House vote saying “every credible parent group in Florida has been outraged by this bill.”
“This doesn’t empower parents, it doesn’t provide better education for students, but will line the pockets of the charter operators,” Andy Ford, president of the statewide teachers union, said in the statement.
But the proposal has influential support from groups such as the Foundation for Florida’s Future, which is chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush. They say it would empower parents.
Under the proposal, parents would be allowed to petition school districts to consider specific turnaround options for schools that receive “F” grades for two consecutive years. If districts reject parents’ plans in favor of other ideas, the state Board of Education would choose the plans that would be implemented.
“Let’s recognize that while failing schools abandon children, parents never do. … And so, if schools are unwilling to change, we have a moral obligation to force that change,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican and son of the Senate president.
HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN (WELL, SORT OF): While lawmakers will have to resolve tough policy issues during the coming weeks, a brightening economic picture should make everybody a little happier.
Sure, the House and Senate have to resolve myriad budget details for the upcoming 2013-14 fiscal year. But a better economy means more tax dollars. And that makes it easier to pump money into popular programs such as education — and avoid painful spending cuts.
“The bottom line is, there’s nothing like having some money,” Thrasher said.
House and Senate appropriations committees Wednesday approved $74 billion budget proposals that will go to the full chambers next week. The Senate committee unanimously approved its spending plan, while the House panel split along party lines because of a disagreement about expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The Medicaid expansion is sort of a budget issue — accepting federal money to expand Medicaid would show up in the budget. But the legislative debate about Medicaid expansion isn’t really about next year’s budget. It’s about Democrats wanting expansion, and Republicans blocking it.
“My main concern is not so much about what’s in the budget, it’s about what’s not in the budget,” House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said during the appropriations committee.
House Republicans criticized Democrats for voting against a budget that, thanks to the better times, is addressing needs such as more money for education.
“We’re here to pass a budget and this, members, is a good budget,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, a Naples Republican who is chairman of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Senate gave final approval to a bill aimed at permanently turning out the lights at Internet cafes.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “There’s nothing a little prosperity won’t help.” — Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, about the budget.