To make Internet cafes legal in Ohio, amend the constitution

As we wrote some time ago in urg- ing the Ohio General Assembly to pass legislation to control storefront gambling in the state, there is no exception in Ohio’s constitution for Internet cafes

Unfortunately, the legislation ran into a roadblock in the Ohio Senate, where powerful Republicans appear to be more interested in listening to lobbyists from Internet cafes than in honoring the intent of the state’s constitution. We thought the clear language of the constitution and the history of what it has taken to legalize gambling in the past made a strong case against the continued operation of 800 gambling parlors that used slot-machine like devices to take money from Ohio gamblers. But some in the Legislature thought the better route would be to regulate the joints. The state’s four licensed casinos are heavily regulated and taxed. Not so Internet cafes. Attorney General Mike DeWine also backed regulatory legislation as the most orderly approach.

New, better tactic

But now, given the Ohio Senate’s refusal to respond in a timely fashion and armed with an 8th District Ohio Court of Appeals decision that found several Cuyahoga County cafes to be illegal gambling houses, DeWine is encouraging county prosecutors to enforce the state’s prohibition of gambling.

DeWine briefed dozens of law enforcement officials from across Ohio last week on how to prosecute Internet sweepstakes cafes and shut them down. His office has a new Internet gaming unit to assist local law enforcement.

“In our office we always believed these places were illegal. Now we’re armed with a court decision which makes this crystal clear,” DeWine said. “The court described these operations as a ‘patently obvious gambling scheme,’ ‘a system devised to skirt the law,’ and an ‘attempt to legitimize illegal gambling.’ “

It is amazing that the people of Ohio had to approve a constitutional amendment to create the Ohio Lottery Commission more than 40 years ago. In subsequent years, several efforts to open the state to casino gambling were rejected by voters until one finally passed in 2008 establishing four licensed casinos in the state. And yet, in recent years more than 800 Internet cafes were opened across the state under the guise that they were as innocuous as skeeball machines at a pizza parlor that offer trinkets or carnival games that give stuffed animals as prizes.

That’s nonsense. Internet cafes are pulling in big money. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be flooding Columbus with campaign cash or wining and dining legislators.

Corrupting influences

The Columbus Dispatch reported last week that the same day that an Ohio Senate committee took action to sidetrack an Ohio House bill regulating Internet cafes, lobbyists for the industry were ready to host a dinner for Republican legislators. It was at a restaurant where the steaks cost almost $50 and extras cost extra. A Dispatch reporter showed up at the dining room about the time the first legislator arrived. Calls were made to the others, and the dinner was moved to another restaurant a couple of miles away.

The Dispatch reports that in 2012, legislators and their caucuses reaped more than $110,000 from cafe interests, with much of it going to Republican leaders. Because of state campaign-finance law, reports on how much is being given to legislators this year won’t be known until January 2014. It would be surprising if it were less; not so surprising if it were more.

Internet cafe owners and their supporters say they’ll challenge DeWine’s efforts.

There’s a better way than battling the attorney general or buying the support of state legislators. If the Internet cafes want to operate in Ohio, they should do what the casino backers did. Place an issue on the Ohio ballot to amend the constitution to allow them to operate. The General Assembly will then pass enabling legislation that would allow the state to tax them, as it does the casinos, and to provide for monitoring to assure that players aren’t being fleeced.

Until then, DeWine — and prosecutors in every county in which Internet cafes are operating illegally — should shut them down.

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