The Florida Legislature has a tough riddle on its hands: What is a slot machine? Many slot players already know the answer from personal experience: It's a device which takes more of a gambler's money than it returns.
That's a real-life definition. But law-makers deal in legal jargon, which sometimes deviates from real life.
Florida doesn't permit true slot machines -- legally defined as machines that use a internal random method to determine what winning symbols will appear on the pay line of the device. Machines that do that are called Class III slots. (More about why the distinction is needed in a minute.)
Back in the old slot machine days, three spinning reels were randomly stopped, and the payout was determined from the mix of bells, bars and cherries on the reels. In the electronic age, a random-number-generator microchip is used to determine the mix of symbols. Video displays, programmed to look like spinning reels, have replaced the real reels of a large majority of slot machines -- if not all of them. They're modern devices, but still slot machines in the truest sense of the word.
Since Florida bans those Class III slot machines, the Seminole Indians and other tribes in the state were not permitted to have that type of gambling on their reservations.
They could have bingo, which the state permits, and poker games.
Why, then, does the recently opened Seminole casino in Tampa look exactly like a Las Vegas gambling room?
Those machines aren't slot machines, even though they have the same trademarked names (Double Diamond, Wheel of Fortune, Wild Cherries) used in Las Vegas.
While most players may think of the Indian-casino machines as true slot machines, they are really Class II gambling devices. The difference between them and a Class III machine is subtle, but the resulting loophole is large enough to drive a tribal casino through.
The Class II machines don't have random-number generators inside. The machines are connected to a main computer that generates the random numbers and sends those numbers to the machines. Each of the separate machines has its own bingo card programmed into it, and the resulting numbers determine whether players get a straight-line bingo, or one square in each corner of the card, or some other match.
Thus, all the players are playing with the same numbers -- but have different bingo cards. The resulting bingo win (or loss) is then converted to a combination of symbols that are displayed on the pay line.
Why has all this electronic maze and substitution come about?
"Necessity is the mother of invention," wrote I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., who specializes in gambling law.
Class II machines, he wrote, are also known as "video-linked devices" and the "one common element to all of these inventions is the drive to have gaming devices that play like modern slot machines, without actually being slot machines. Video bingo machines, for example, now can display the exact same symbols as casino slot machines, but the actual game being played must meet the legal definition of bingo."
Federal appellate courts in several circuits have ruled that the Johnson Act, a federal anti-slot statute, does not apply to Class II machines if they are truly based on a bingo game. Even though the bingo game result is converted to look like an authentic slot machine, the hardware isn't the same as a Class III slot machine.
"The courts rejected applying the Johnson Act to Class II games, because the Johnson Act has such a broad definition of what constitutes a gaming device that it could conceivably outlaw bingo blowers," he noted.
Last month, voters in Broward County approved adding "slot machines" -- whatever that meant -to pari-mutuel operations in the county. That brings us back to the question the Legislature must answer, because it ultimately regulates the machines.
"The constitutional amendment clearly says they were voting on slot machines," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. "Nowhere did it say bingo or video machines." The remark came during a meeting of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which voted 6-2 to pass a bill allowing Class III (Las Vegas) machines. No limit is set on the number of slots that would be permitted in Broward.
The House (and Gov. Jeb Bush) believe that only Class II (bingotype) machines should be permitted. If Class III machines are used, then Indian-run casinos could demand them in their casinos. The House version of the law would also set a 3,000-machine limit on the number of slots in Broward.
But the Legislature is about to become entangled in a legal web: If the Class II machines used at Indian reservations aren't "slot machines," then how does allowing only those machines in Broward fulfill the constitution's requirement of permitting "slot machines"?
If the Legislature says Class II machines are "slot machines," why doesn't the Johnson Act apply to them? Why doesn't Florida press the federal government to close down Indian-run casinos under the anti-slots act?
In the end, the Class II and Class III argument seems only to be a red herring: Both are designed to separate gamblers from their money. In either class machine, payouts are randomly generated. One simply skirts the legal definition of a slot machine.
Tom Truex, mayor of Davie, has the best view on the task ahead: "We would like to see you limit the impact as much as possible," he told committee members. "Limit the number of days [the machines can be used], the hours [of daily operation], the number of machines. It's no secret this [Senate] bill was crafted to maximize the profit to the industry and limit money for education. And that's upside down."
Whether Class II or Class III machines, gamblers will still insert their coins and bills. Ask any of them what the distinction is, and only a fraction may know, or care, as long as there's a jackpot.
Legislators need to look at what really matters: What percentage will the state keep? How many hours a day will the machines operate? How many of them should there be?