JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Facing a crowded room, the Florida Senate Committee on Gaming voted unanimously to push forward a bill to ban Internet cafes Monday.
The vote followed a move by the House committee Friday to forward a similar bill.
Both pieces of legislation were filed days after a racketeering and money laundering investigation into Allied Veteran's of the World Internet cafes was revealed. The organization's top officials are accused of pocketing nearly $300 million and donating only two percent of the proceeds to charity. The three-year, multi-state investigation resulted in 53 arrests so far, and the closing of 49 cafes statewide last week.
Now, owners of Internet cafes not associated with Allied say they are being punished for the organizations alleged wrongdoing.
"We run a business. We do it legally," says Cindy Taylor, owner and General manager of Players Sweepstakes in Middleburg.
After hearing news of the investigation, Taylor temporarily closed her doors and ordered an immediate recertification of all gaming software to be sure she complies with current state law.
Internet cafes operate under a legal loophole, but some members of the Florida House and Senate want that changed.
"These establishments are illegal and should be closed," Sen. John Thrasher told Action News, just moments after the bill he proposed was approved.
Taylor calls the move unfair.
"I think they're making a hasty decision under a cloud of Allied Veterans."
Taylor thinks lawmakers are acting on emotion and not experience.
"No one that's making the decisions for us and our lives has ever walked through the front door of this place."
Players Sweepstakes is just one of an estimated 1,000 internet cafes in Florida that would be forced to shut down if the law changes as proposed. Taylor says that would have an even greater economic impact than just the layoffs of cafe employees, and because of that, she hopes lawmakers will instead let the people decide the next step.
"From the desks that we buy, to the food that we serve, it all comes from someone local. There's much more involved here than what they're looking at and I think they need to slow down. Let the people speak. It's their money that they're trying to dictate what their allowed to spend it on. Why not ask what they think before they make a decision?"
Rep. Charles McBurney tells Action News the legislation is similar to bills filed in the past, so he believes lawmakers have had enough time to consider the effects. In the last legislative session, the house passed a similar bill, but it didn't make it to the Senate floor before the session concluded.
The Senate legislation is an amended version of a bill already introduced by Thrasher pushing further regulation.
Only one house member voted against the current bill, claiming more time is needed.
The full Senate and a second house committee could vote again next week.