COLUMBUS - The latest effort to strike down unauthorized gambling in Ohio got final legislative approval Wednesday, but discussions will continue regarding fraternal and veterans organizations and other gambling issues.
Supporters of House Bill 7, sponsored by Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, designed to shut down Internet cafes in Ohio by limiting payouts from sweepstakes machines to $10, have argued that the more than 600 storefronts operating throughout Ohio are conducting illegal gambling operations. Law enforcement, including Attorney General Mike DeWine, say the largely cash operations would be nearly impossible to regulate, and some are home to other illegal activity such as money laundering.
"To me, the question is a pretty simple one. Do we want statewide gambling in Ohio, and did voters ever authorize statewide gambling in Ohio?" said Sen. Larry Obhof, R-Medina. "I think the answer to each of those questions is no."
Though some Senate Republicans have argued that the bill might not fully clamp down on the industry, it passed 27-6 and is headed to Gov. John Kasich, who will sign it. Cafe operators and software providers could attempt to collect signatures for an effort to overturn the law on the November 2014 ballot. Calls to a number of industry lobbyists were not returned.
"I would be shocked ... that this one would have referendum support," said Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina.
Faber said the Senate was asked by law enforcement and other supporters to let the bill pass without changes. "We're going to be watching this very closely and seeing if it works as anticipated."
Faber expects lawmakers to continue to deal with gambling issues this session. The Casino Control Commission, he said, has a list of requests dealing with such things as minors inside casinos. Fraternal and veterans groups have been given until Aug. 1 by DeWine to convince lawmakers to specify that their electronic gambling machines are legal.
"We're looking for avenues to try and work that issue out," Faber said. "Ohioans have recognized charitable gaming as a public purpose."
The Senate president also thinks talks will begin on consolidating all gambling oversight - lottery, charitable gaming, casinos, horseracing - into the Casino Control Commission.
Internet cafe owners and some municipal leaders that collect taxes and fees from the businesses argued that the state should regulate the storefronts rather than close them down. They have argued that the businesses provide clean forms of entertainment and that the activity is not gambling, but rather the use of sweepstakes to sell phone cards or Internet time.
Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said that rather than regulate, the Senate is working for the " convenience of prosecutors who don't want to separate the wheat from the chaff."
Seitz also noted that the state tried to shut down skill-games parlors five years ago, only to see the industry morph into Internet cafes, or sweepstakes parlors. "We have been down this road before, and I predict it will not work again."
Sen. John Eklund, R-Chardon, said past failures to block unauthorized gambling doesn't mean they shouldn't try again.
"These Internet cafes ... are all illegal gambling under current law," he said. "No one has ever approved statewide gambling for profit."
The House yesterday approved a one-year extension of the moratorium on the opening of new Internet cafes, and more-extensive state registration requirements for cafe operators. That bill also is headed to the governor, who will sign it.