With critics likening them to storefront casinos, a House panel Tuesday approved a proposal to ban Internet cafés that have opened in shopping centers across the state in recent years.
"It is gambling in every sense of the word,'' said Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican who is sponsoring the proposed ban (HB 3).
But opponents of Plakon's bill argue that shutting down the cafés would cost thousands of jobs and say lawmakers should instead regulate the industry.
"At the core of this bill, what strikes me is the jobs,'' said Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington.
The House Business & Consumer Affairs Subcommittee voted 10-5 to approve the bill, which comes amid a much-broader debate about gambling in Florida. The Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Thursday is slated to consider two Internet café bills, with one measure (SB 428) calling for a ban and another (SB 380) calling for regulation.
Also, the Senate committee approved a resort-casino bill last week that was stuffed with gambling-related issues, including regulation of Internet cafés.
An estimated 1,000 Internet cafés have opened in Florida during the past several years, with the industry saying it offers electronic sweepstakes-style games that are allowed under state law. But opponents say the games are computer versions of slot machines and that the cafés particularly target low-income people.
Plakon's bill drew support Tuesday from law-enforcement officials, including Attorney General Pam Bondi's office, as well as from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and a group connected to the Florida Baptist Convention.
But it also faces opposition, including from some veterans groups that receive money from the games. One such group, the non-profit Allied Veterans of the World, is a major player in the Internet café industry.
Laurie Lee, an attorney for International Internet Technologies, which licenses computer software to Allied Veterans facilities, told the subcommittee that each café employs eight to 13 people --- which would roughly mean the industry has about 10,000 jobs in Florida.
Lee said the state should regulate the cafés, such as making sure computer software follows legal requirements and addressing café advertising that touts gambling. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said she was worried that a ban would hurt charitable organizations.
"I think this is a situation that begs for regulation,'' said Thompson, one of the dissenting votes in the subcommittee.
But Plakon likened regulation to giving "amnesty" to Internet cafés. Also, he argued that state regulation of the facilities could be considered an expansion of legalized gambling, which could jeopardize an agreement with the Seminole Indians that leads to the state receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from tribal-owned casinos.
Other supporters of the bill questioned the argument that it would lead to job losses. Some said the operations of Internet cafés are a policy issue that lawmakers need to address.
"It's gambling,'' said Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville. "You look at it -- it's gambling.''