It may be hard to tell by the absence of flashing lights, noisy crowds or intermittent sound of jackpot slot machines, but the billion-dollar Florida gaming industry is growing, with slot machines coming to the counties of Washington, Lee, Palm Beach, Hamilton, Brevard and Gadsden.
Voter-approved referendums to allow the machines are being challenged by Attorney General Pam Bondi, who claims that outside gambling -- that is, outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties -- should not be allowed.
“We will not see an expansion of slot machines in Florida in 2013,” said law professor Robert Jarvis of Nova Southeastern University Law Center, who studies the effect of gambling laws. ”We will, however, continue to see an expansion of Internet sweepstakes parlors.”
Sweepstakes cafes are casual establishments with a menu of food or drink. Customers pay to use the Internet, allowing them access to gambling games on the computers in the cafe. They play the games and cash in the earned credits at the register when they’re ready to leave.
Businesses are specifically prohibitied from “accepting payments in connection with participation in a bet,” according to state law, so the initial Internet fee allows Florida cafes to operate without scrutiny.
State officials say there are about 1,000 Internet sweepstakes cafes in Florida.
Florida Watchdog wanted to talk to owners of gaming machines in cafes in South Miami and Hialeah, but three owners refused to answer questions or to allow filming or photography in their establishments.
One said she did not want to “get into trouble with the police,” because she is concerned that further attention may lead to a police raid on her business.
Gaming brings big revenue to the state treasury. In 2012, more than 6,400 gambling machines generated more than $373.6 million, 4.6 percent more than the previous year. Of this amount, it’s estimated the state received upward of $130.8 million in tax revenue.
In Florida, casinos are operated by Native American tribes, among them the powerful Seminole. On three occasions, voters have rejected a proposal to allow the construction of mega Vegas-style casinos in South Florida, but pro-gaming groups and lobbyists have remained relentless.
In 2012, a bill that would have brought the same question to voters statewide failed to pass in the Legislature. In response, lawmakers created the Gambling Study Committee, chaired by casino supporters, state Sens. Garrett Richter and Maria Sachs.
“The Florida Senate’s Gambling Study Committee will certainly be an arena in which the pro-casino forces will attempt to make their case,” said Jarvis. “I do not, however, expect them to be successful.”
Miami-Dade and Broward were the first counties to ease the rules on gambling after state voters approved a constitutional amendment granting the use of slot machines in specific jurisdictions in 2004, according to an advisory opinion by Attorney General Bondi. Once the local referenda were passed, licensed businesses were allowed to offer betting on horse and greyhound races, as well as install slot machines.
Contact Marianela Toledo at Marianela.Toledo@FloridaWatchdog.org. Watchdog.org’s Florida Bureau Chief Yaël Ossowski translated this article from Spanish.