State Legislature should ban Internet sweepstakes parlors

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has made no secret of his disdain for gambling joints cloaked in the innocent-sounding name of Internet cafes, would welcome the chance to take on these unregulated, unlicensed operations in a court of law. The Ohio General Assembly should make DeWine’s wish come true.

Rather than pass legislation that redefines the term sweepstakes in an effort to render the Internet cafes illegal, the Republican led General Assembly should act on a clean bill that would ban — the word is not open to interpretation — the 819 outlets already operating in Ohio. There are a significant number of the establishments in the Mahoning Valley.

Such a measure would undoubtedly trigger a court challenge, which would then give Attorney General DeWine a chance to strut his legal stuff. For the past two years, the state’s top lawyer has looked to the Legislature to pull the plug on these gambling parlors, but the best lawmakers could come up with was a moratorium on such places until June 30, 2013. In so doing, they gave de facto recognition to the cafes that have been operating outside the regulations that apply to gambling in Ohio.

Recognizing the shortcomings of the law, state Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, has introduced a bill that he believes would have the effect of banning the Internet cafes because of the redefinition of the term sweepstakes.

But, as the Columbus Dispatch reported, a Columbus lawyer who represents many owners, said he believes that Huffman’s legislation would place the cafes under the authority of the Ohio Lottery Commission.

If Atty. Kurt Gearhiser’s reading of the bill is correct, the goal of a shutting down this unregulated $1 billion-a-year business, as the Dispatch defined it, would not be realized.

The 819 establishments do not have a constitutional right to exist. The creation of the Ohio Lottery Commission, gambling that benefits charities and Vegas-style gambling through the construction of four full-service casinos in specific cities in Ohio came about through amendments to the Ohio Constitution.

Internet sweepstakes cafes were not included in any of the ballot language. Ohio voters were never asked if they supported the creation of this unregulated, unlicensed industry that is now in competition with the Ohio Lottery and casinos approved for Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

As Jennifer Kulczycki, spokeswoman for Rock Ohio Caesars, owner-operators of the Horseshoe Casino in Cleveland and a similar casino to open in Cincinnati next spring, told the Dispatch, the cafes are “conducting unauthorized gambling activity ... These businesses are skirting the law and avoiding basic scrutiny.”

She said casinos, by contrast, are “among the most-regulated businesses in the world.” Attorney General DeWine points out that the gambling devices used in the cafes are not policed by the state.

No inspections

He said they are not inspected and there is no required payout. On the other hand, slot machines and video-lottery terminals in casinos and soon-to-be racinos are closely monitored by the state. In addition, operators must pay out at least 85 percent of the money wagered.

The owners of the Internet cafes have been resourceful scofflaws. They’ll exploit any loophole the Legislature provides.

What must be done is rather simple: The General Assembly should pass a bill that uses the word ban with regard to Internet sweepstakes cafes in Ohio.

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