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Arcade Fix Poses Problems

March 10, 2014 - 7:00pm

An attempt to clear up confusion over laws regulating arcade games may create even more problems, possibly opening the door for a resurgence in storefront casinos and senior arcades.

A year ago, lawmakers hurriedly passed a law shutting down Internet cafes in response to a multistate investigation into Allied Veterans of the World, a bogus charity accused of running an illegal gambling ring throughout the state. The new law also was intended to shut down adult arcades frequented by seniors in Palm Beach, Broward and Southwest Florida.

But family entertainment centers like Dave & Busters and Chuck E. Cheese's, as well as retailers with claw machines, say they were caught in the crosshairs of last year's law.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has proposed a bill that she said "further clarifies and updates" the laws regarding games at arcades, bowling alleys and retailers. The Senate Gaming Committee on Monday unanimously approved the proposal.

"You're providing the clarification that these amusement centers need to continue to provide entertainment for children and adults," Stargel said.

But Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, asked whether the proposed law could also apply to senior arcades, many of which shut down after the Internet cafe ban was passed last year.

"How about those kids that are 80, 85, and 90?" Sachs asked. "So this would bring back the activation of some of the arcades that were stand-alone or (in) strip shopping malls we had in my district?"

"They have to have 50 arcade games or more" and could not hand out gift cards for Publix or other stores like the senior arcades have done in the past," Stargel told her.

When asked after the meeting if the measure would allow the senior arcades to reopen after the Legislature specifically shut them down last year, Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said: "I don't have an answer for that."

The measure (SB 668) defines amusement games or machines as games "which are operated only for bona fide entertainment of the general public" and would allow the machines, now restricted to being coin-operated, to accept tokens or "swipe cards." The proposal would also raise the value of prizes, now limited to 75 cents, to $5.75, or what 75 cents in 1967 is worth today.

The proposal also authorizes machines to allow players "to receive merchandise directly," which could be problematic, according to gambling lawyer and lobbyist Marc Dunbar.

Dunbar said the proposal mirrored similar laws that made it possible for gangsters to pepper the state with slot-machine parlors during the 1930s. Dunbar also said that allowing games like claw machines to directly dispense prizes would violate the state's compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Arcades have struggled to prove that their machines are "games of skill" and not "games of chance," like slot machines and which are prohibited except at certain pari-mutuels.

The measure defines a game of skill as one in which the "player controls the outcome of the game." That ambiguity, as well as others, won't prevent gray-area operators from popping up around the state, Dunbar said.

"It will be very, very easy to exploit the loopholes in this bill," Dunbar said later.

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