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Proposal Would Ease Worries of Amusement Arcades

January 14, 2014 - 6:00pm

Sen. Kelli Stargel has filed a measure aimed at helping amusement arcade owners worried about a law passed last year that put Internet cafes out of business.

Stargel, R-Lakeland, said her proposal is intended to "clarify" what state lawmakers did last year in a hastily-approved law banning Internet cafes -- often likened to storefront casinos -- and "senior arcades."

But Stargel's proposal also goes further to address restrictions about amusement games that have been on the books for a long time but have generally not been enforced.

Decades-old state law requires arcades to have a minimum of 50 machines, which must be coin-operated. Prizes are capped at a value of 75 cents, something that hasn't changed since 1967, according to Stargel.

Her bill would do away with the minimum number of machines; allow the machines to operate with "swipe" cards, dollar bills or slugs; and raise the value of prizes to $5.75, or what 75 cents in 1967 is worth today.

The restrictions were largely ignored but now bowling alley operators, small hoteliers and some retail stores have asked for clarification of whether their machines are legal.

"This really has nothing to do with gaming. It has to do with amusement machines," Stargel said.

The bill would clarify what large arcades like Chuck E. Cheese's and Dave & Buster's, as well as smaller facilities, "can and cannot do," she said.

Stargel's proposal, filed late Wednesday but not immediately assigned a bill number, would also make it clear that claw machines are legal by raising the limit on the value of a skill-based game that directly dispenses prizes to $50.

The Legislature outlawed Internet cafes last spring in the wake of a gambling sting that resulted in 57 arrests and prompted the resignation of former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. Carroll once consulted for Allied Veterans of the World, a nonprofit at the heart of the racketeering investigation, but was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Stargel said the proposed changes won't impact the ban on the storefront casinos.

"I don't think there's any way you can construe it to opening the door up for those. We're just clarifying that little piece that's already exempted because it's not gaming. It's amusement," she said.

Brian Neslund, who owns the Family Fun Center in Lakeland, said Stargel's proposal should clear up confusion and put arcade operators like himself at ease in part by raising the limit on the value of the prizes in the claw machines, now 75 cents, to $50.

"Essentially what we'd have to put in would be very cheap-quality prizes which is what everyone complains about when they come into an establishment for kids," Neslund said. "The prizes of 75 cents are not things that would entice people to play the games. People don't want to play for a 75-cent prize."

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter said he supports the concept of fixing "unintended consequences" of last year's law, either in Stargel's bill or as part of an omnibus gambling package he is now crafting.

"I'm ready to embrace solutions to those problems," Richter, R-Naples, said.

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