COLUMBUS - Bells, loud music and flashing lights set the scene for the first meeting of the Permanent Joint Committee on Gaming and Wagering of the Ohio General Assembly yesterday. The session was held somewhere between the Triple Double Diamond slot machine and the High Stakes Poker Room at the Hollywood Casino Columbus.
The special legislative committee, composed of three members of the Ohio House and three from the Senate, was created in 2010, but was activated only recently to tackle the controversial topic of Internet sweepstakes cafes. The sweepstakes, which are unregulated, typically give customers a phone card or Internet time in exchange for the chance to win cash prizes.
What do small storefront Internet cafes scattered throughout Ohio have to with a glitzy $400 million casino?
State Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, a committee member and sponsor of legislation to regulate the cafes, said the casino trip was "fact-finding" for a larger look at gambling in Ohio.
"For people who don't know much about casinos, you make certain assumptions. It's good to go to school. I certainly learned a lot."
None of the lawmakers gambled during the two-hour visit organized and led by the Ohio Casino Control Commission with approval of casino officials. Lawmakers also got to see the "back of the house" where the money is counted and security personnel view images from hundreds of video surveillance cameras.
For Attorney General Mike DeWine and others who would like to see Internet sweepstakes regulated or eliminated, the committee's fact-finding efforts seem like a slow boat to nowhere. On Wednesday, DeWine, tired of waiting for lawmakers to act, announced that he will begin a law-enforcement crackdown on cafes, based on an appellate court ruling in Cleveland that concluded that they are illegal gambling.
Huffman's bill would limit payouts from sweepstakes machines to $10, effectively putting them out of business. It passed the House last month but faces an uncertain future in the Senate after the committee was activated. He said yesterday the bill should move "expeditiously."
Rob Nichols, spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, said yesterday that the governor supports Internet cafe legislation "that leaves no wiggle room for abuse. The governor believes the House has charted the right course, he supports their legislation, he wants to see it passed, and looks forward to signing it into law."
Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, a member of the committee on the casino tour, is determined to take a deliberate approach. He said his goal is to pass Internet cafe legislation during the current biennial legislative session, possibly as late as next year.
Also on the tour were Sen. Bill Coley, R-Middletown, the committee chairman; Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard; Rep. Stephen Slesnick, D-Canton; and Sen. Chris Widener, R-Springfield, who is not on the committee but asked to come along.
State Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima