Ohio Senate can’t see what’s wrong in storefront gambling

In December, Ohio Senate President Tom Niehaus decided not to bring to a vote a House-passed bill to regulate more than 800 Internet gambling cafes that are clearly flouting the Ohio Constitution. Niehaus said there was not enough time to fully consider the bill.

It’s not as if this is a new issue. The Legislature has dallied for years while Internet cafes have sprung up in storefronts and strip plazas across Ohio. Mahoning and Trumbull counties alone have about 70 of them.

And it’s not as if this should be a gray area for lawmakers. The Ohio Constitution clearly prohibits gambling enterprises and any exceptions to that — including the state-run lottery 40 years ago and the approval of four specific casinos in recent years — have been approved through constitutional amendments passed by voters.

The Senate has a new president now, Keith Faber, a Celina Republican, and there doesn’t appear to be any reason to believe that Faber is any more interested cracking down on illegal gambling parlors than was Niehaus.

Trouble fitting the pieces together

Bill Coley, chairman of the Permanent Joint Committee on Gaming and Wagering, said his Senate colleagues want to take a more comprehensive look at Internet cafes and how they might fit in. Well, here’s how they’re already fitting in, senator. While the investors who went to the trouble and expense of seeking a constitutional amendment to allow them to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fees to the state and hundreds of millions more to build glitzy venues, hundreds of low-rent gambling joints are operating with virtually no oversight and paying nothing in state licensing fees.

Coley, a Butler County Republican, suggests it is a freedom issue for unregulated gambling parlors to operate throughout the state. “If we limit freedom in this area, what are the repercussions of that?” he asks.

We’d ask another question: If you allow these joints to continue to operate, what are the repercussions for the rule of law in the state? Does the Ohio Constitution continue to be worth the paper it’s printed on?

The Ohio House gets it. It passed House Bill 605 on a bipartisan vote last year and sent the bill to the Senate. The bill would have made it clear that there would be no cash prizes, that prizes would be limited to no more than $10 in value, and that the machines would be subject to inspection to make sure they were not fleecing players.

Internet gambling interests mounted a full-press lobbying effort, playing on the bogus “freedom” issue and arguing that they were providing valuable jobs. This was enough to befuddle Ohio’s Senate leaders.

There’s only one right way

There is no question that Ohio’s attitude toward gambling has undergone a dramatic shift in recent decades. If Ohioans want to take the next step to allow slot machines and similar devices on every street corner, let the Internet cafe interests stop spending money on lobbyists and invest in putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to legitimize their businesses.

Otherwise, the General Assembly has an obligation to pass legislation that reins in the wholesale violation of the constitution in the name of freedom or economic development or any other sham phrase that the Internet cafe forces choose to hide behind.

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