Seminole Tribe Says State Could Forfeit Millions

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Seminole Tribe of Florida could stop paying tens of millions to the state if legislators move ahead with a bill to regulate electronic sweepstakes operations known as Internet cafes.

There are as many as 1,000 of the operations in Florida but there have been questions about whether they are illegal under the state’s gambling laws. The Legislature is considering legislation to either regulate Internet cafes or ban them altogether. Gov. Rick Scott has called for them to be shut down.

A Feb. 1 opinion provided to the Seminoles says any effort to regulate and keep open Internet cafes — which have been branded “storefront casinos” by critics — would violate a 2010 compact the tribe signed with the state.

The state granted the Seminoles exclusive gambling rights in exchange for $1 billion over a five-year period. The Seminoles operate both slot machines and card games such as blackjack at a handful of casinos including ones in South Florida and Tampa.

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminoles, said that the tribe was “studying the issue, but continues to be committed” to the compact with the state.

But those fighting to regulate Internet cafes blasted the new opinion.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, contends that Internet cafes started showing up in Florida years before the compact was signed. He vowed to keep fighting any efforts to ban them because they would result in the loss of an estimated 13,000 jobs.

“As the sponsor of the legislation, I will not allow smoke and mirror legal opinions to deter me from seeking to regulate Internet cafes and opposing the job-killing efforts to ban these legal Florida businesses,” Diaz de la Portilla said.

Now that a bill to bring three major casinos to the state has been shot down, the fight over Internet cafes is now the most significant gambling issue remaining to be settled during the 2012 session. Two House committees have already voted in favor of a bill (HB 3) that would ban Internet cafes.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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