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Jacksonville's Internet cafe issue brings lobbyists out of the woodwork

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 23, 2010.

When Jacksonville City Councilman Kevin Hyde decided to sponsor legislation to shut down Internet cafes this year, he expected to see people lining up outside his door to talk about it.

"I knew going into this it would be likely to draw this level of interest because of the amount of money involved," Hyde said.

He might not have expected interest to run quite so high, though.

As of Tuesday, the two sides fighting over the issue had signed up 10 lobbyists apiece, including some of the biggest names in town.

The legislation that would shut down businesses that use "slot machine-like spinning displays" isn't expected to come up for a vote for weeks, and it's unclear which side is likely to prevail.

One thing is clear: The issue is a bonanza for the local lobbying community, with more than a quarter of everyone who is lobbying the City Council working on one side or the other.

"I've heard more people voice their opinion on it than any other issue, " said Councilman Don Redman, who had signed on as an early co-sponsor of the legislation.

GAME OR GAMBLING?

At the heart of the issue are businesses that opponents say skirt the law regarding gambling.

Patrons of the businesses buy Internet time and phone cards and are given free sweepstakes entries that are predetermined to be winners or losers. Many then use video displays that look like slot machines to show if they've won or lost - an activity proponents say is no different from scratching off a Monopoly sweepstakes piece at McDonald's.

Having the council understand that these businesses aren't gambling requires a team, said Jerry Bass, national commander of Allied Veterans of the World, a nonprofit that owns eight Internet cafes in Jacksonville and is leading the fight to keep them open.

"They've been very receptive to the fact that it was not what it was sold to them to be, " he said. "If I had been told what they had been told, I would have reacted the way they reacted."

But opponents of the cafes say they're the one providing valid information, showing that patrons believe they're gambling.

"It's important for us to be able to get as much fact-based information as possible in the hands of council members, and that requires a number of people to get that information out, " said Michael Munz, a spokesman for Jacksonville Greyhound Racing Inc. (Munz is a registered lobbyist, but not on this issue.)

The racetrack has led the fight against the Internet businesses, arguing that it's been told it can't have such machines because they're gambling devices.

At the beginning of March, two months before the bill that would shutter the cafes was introduced, neither side appeared to have had much contact with the council.

Allied Veterans had no lobbyists and the track had one - Paul Harden - who was tasked to deal with land use and zoning issues.

The racetrack's lobbying efforts started to heat up about a month before the bill was introduced, with its lobbying stable having grown to seven.

Allied Veterans, meanwhile, had two registered lobbyists: Paul McCormick, whose filing said there were "no active issues; " and John Daigle, for whom there were "no current issues."

GETTING THEIR WORDS OUT

By mid-May, when it looked like the bill would be heading to committee, both sides had eight lobbyists each on their payrolls.

"We had to get enough lobbyists involved to get the word out, " Bass said. "We couldn't hire the people they hire because we didn't have the money."

Allied Veterans is probably spending $12,000 to $15,000 a month, Bass said.

"That's money we could be giving to worthy organizations that we're having to give to lobbyists and attorneys, " he said.

Munz was unable to say how much the racetrack was spending on the fight.

Since it was introduced, three council committees have been waiting to discuss the bill, but various key players have been out of town in the past several weeks.

That delay, both sides said, has been good for their side.

Allied Veterans is pushing a compromise that would limit and regulate the business, and Bass said that idea has gained some support on the council.

Munz said more time to talk is good because it limits the amount of emotion in the discussion.

"Every time we have a substantiative conversation and get into what-they-say-vs.-the-truth, we continue to gain support, " he said. "They win when they get to have a show. We win when we can discuss the issues."

With a vote on the bill expected in August, both sides plan to continue with their lobbying efforts over the coming weeks, giving them time to pitch and counter-pitch councilmen like Redman, who says he has pledged to "hear out any conditions or amendments that may be introduced."

"I'd have never of dreamed it'd be like this, " the councilman said about the level of lobbying. "When this started, I didn't know what an Internet cafe was."

TAKING SIDES
The fight over Internet cafes has generated more lobbying activity than any other recent topic before the Jacksonville City Council, including the Trail Ridge landfill, which had about 10 people lobbying for different entities. Those lobbying over the cafes have been hired either by Allied Veterans, who operate many of the businesses, or Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, the poker room and racetrack operator that wants the cafes shut down.



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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