By Marc Kovac
State lawmakers are considering a yearlong moratorium on new Internet caf s, a type of gaming business that operates outside of state regulations.
A provision added to a larger bill related to casinos, horse tracks and the state lottery would block the opening of any additional online sweepstakes storefronts until July 2013 — a move that would give lawmakers more time to pass separate legislation regulating the expanding gaming option.
The language was included in a substitute version of House Bill 386 that was accepted for consideration Thursday by the Senate’s Government Oversight and Reform Committee. A floor vote is expected early next month.
The legislation, OK’d by the House in February, includes a number of law changes related to gambling, many focused on the licensing of the state’s four new casinos. Among other provisions, it would expand the definition of corrupt activities to include cheating at casino games and would increase penalties against those who attempt to bribe casino operators, managers or commission members.
It also would define the casino control commission as a law-enforcement agency, enabled to investigate potential crimes, seize evidence and arrest individuals for gaming offenses.
And it includes rules to accommodate the relocation of racetracks in Columbus and Toledo to the Youngstown and Dayton areas, respectively.
The substitute bill offered during the Senate committee session Thursday added the moratorium on Internet caf s and comparable storefronts, which began surfacing after the state tightened state law concerning skill-based amusement games.
Skill-based machines, including Skee Ball, Whac-a-Mole and comparable games, are allowed under state law. But limits are in place on prizes — no cash or gift cards and only merchandize with a wholesale value of less than $10.
The changes were made in recent years in an attempt to stop the proliferation of slot-machinelike terminals that were operated in parlors around the state.
But new businesses have since sprouted around Ohio offering online sweepstakes gaming, operating in similar fashion, opponents say, to slot machines.
Attorney General Mike DeWine and others have said state law is not clear on the legality of Internet caf s, making it difficult for law enforcement to crack down on such operations.
Bills in the Ohio House and Senate would require sweepstakes machines to be certified and licensed by the Ohio Casino Control Commission prior to being played by the public.
Sen. Bill Coley, a Republican from southwestern Ohio and chairman of the Senate’s government oversight committee, said it’s unlikely lawmakers will have time to act on those bills prior to breaking for the summer, though he hoped final action could be taken before the end of the session.
The moratorium language was added to the larger gaming bill Thursday just in case that doesn’t happen.
“If we’re able to get these other two bills done, that moratorium would not be needed,” Coley said. “But we want to make sure that local governments have the ability to position these in an area that’s best for the local community while at the same time making sure that the consumers get what they bargain for and they know what they’re getting into.”