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Arcades capture a prize with bill

But it infuriates parimutuels that view the measure as allowing a form of unregulated gambling.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 16, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers refused to regulate slot machines in their recent annual session, but they helped another form of gambling: the fast-growing adult arcade industry.

The arcades, with rows of colorful, noisy machines that look like slots, are very popular among retirees who want the thrill of gambling without the risk of losing lots of money.

But they are unpopular with horse and dog tracks, who see the arcades as cut-rate competitors.

The arcades sought a new provision in state law to give new legal protection at a time when police are confiscating machines, claiming they are an illegal form of gambling.

The new provision came in a three-word amendment to a consumer protection bill allowing arcade machines to operate with coins "or other currency."

Arcade operators say the machines already accept cards or tokens, and that the change brings the law up to date with technology. But critics, led by operators of horse and dog tracks, say the amendment widens a loophole and expands gambling, which is the opposite of what lawmakers claimed to be doing when they refused to regulate slots.

Like many late-session amendments tailored to help a particular industry, it all happened quickly and quietly, without public discussion.

A lobbyist persuaded an influential Miami senator, Republican Alex Villalobos, to attach the amendment to a consumer protection bill that was a priority of state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.

"The amendment went on three bills, but only one made it. You only need one, right?" said the lobbyist, Frank Mirabella, who represents the Florida Arcade Association.

Villalobos, the Senate majority leader and a key member of Senate President Tom Lee's inner circle, said he couldn't understand the fuss.

"All it does is allow them to use tokens or dollar bills. That's all it does," Villalobos said. "I didn't see what the big thing was. I was with Frank one day and he said, "Can you do this?' and I said, "Yeah."'

The bill (SB 1520), sponsored by Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, raced through both houses unanimously and is headed to Gov. Jeb Bush.

"I'm shocked that it's in there," said Brian Ballard, who lobbies for Palm Beach Kennel Club. "It is an attempt to make legitimate what should be viewed as a form of nonregulated, nontaxed gambling. It's crazy. The governor should veto the bill."

Arcade operators criticize the parimutuels as a dying industry determined to wipe out any form of competition.

"This is David vs. Goliath," said Gail Fontaine of Pompano Beach, president of the Florida Arcade Association, which hired Mirabella. "The parimutuels have been trying for two years to shut down these penny arcades ... They don't want any competition."

The amendment allowing arcade machines to accept tokens or dollar bills surfaces as the industry faces new legal obstacles.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal last month upheld the city of Melbourne's seizure of 50 arcade machines and $17,000 in cash, ruling that "the "arcade exemption' contained in (state law) for coin-operated amusement games has no application to the instant machines which operate solely upon the insertion of dollar bills."

For the past few years, the arcades, with names like Spin City, Lucky's Arcade and Johnny's Rec Room, have proliferated in South Florida, but in a murky, quasilegal world.

The arcades have existed under a nebulous law known as "the Chuck E. Cheese's exemption," which allows arcade games, as long as the machines are coin-operated and require some element of skill, not chance. At a Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant, young players collect tickets they can redeem for prizes such as stuffed animals and Nerf footballs.

Blue-collar retirees are attracted to the arcades because they offer cheap entertainment and free buffet meals and drinks besides noisy, colorful games.

But police in several counties, including Hillsborough, Brevard, Volusia, St. Johns, Broward and Palm Beach have shut down the machines on the grounds that they violate gambling laws because they are based on chance and not skill.

The Senate amendment was a response to an advisory legal opinion issued last year by Attorney General Charlie Crist, which local police - with the approval of the parimutuel industry - have used to justify shutting down some arcades.

Crist wrote that adult arcades or amusement centers that award prizes based on chance and which operate by a coin or "paper currency of various denominations" violate state law. In Florida, Crist wrote, those machines can be operated "by insertion of a coin only."

Most arcade machines use electronic debit cards or tokens.

"It appears that the Legislature's use of only the term "coin' in (the law) reflects an intent that only those machines that operate by use of a coin fall within the exception to the prohibition against slot machines," Crist wrote in the March 2004 opinion which was requested by Pompano Beach City Attorney Gordon Linn.

Stationed near the House chamber in the closing days of the session, Mirabella held a one-page set of talking points for lawmakers. They said the three-word amendment was needed to fix "operational problems that the veterans' organizations and Chuck E. Cheese's have experienced." The summary did not mention the arcade operators.

Even as legislators changed the law to help arcades, they refused to consider a proposal that would have given cities and counties zoning control over adult arcades and would have prohibited them from awarding cigarettes or cash coupons as prizes.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, sponsor of the bill, joined all senators in voting for Villalobos' "or other currency" amendment. It passed April 29, and the House followed suit a few days later.

--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Reporter Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 16, 2005, 01:12:02]


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