Ohio Senate Republicans see the light about Internet cafes

In a quick and welcome turnabout, Ohio Senate President Keith Faber said Wednesday that the Senate would move swiftly to shut down illegal Internet cafes in the state.

Faber seems to have undergone an overnight conversion following a single meeting with Attorney General Mike DeWine, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien and Department of Public Safety Director Tom Charles, who briefed the Republican caucus on what’s going on at and behind the scenes of more than 800 storefront gambling parlors in the state.

Senate Republicans blocked passage of a House bill to rein in the Internet cafes last session, and seemed to be prepared to do the same this time. Last week, on the same day that an Ohio Senate committee sidetracked a new House bill on Internet cafes, suggesting the proposal could require as much as a year of study, a Columbus Dispatch reporter found Faber and other Republican Senate leaders being wined and dined by lobbyists for the sweepstakes industry. These are lobbyists who were very generous with legislators last year, and appeared ready to continue their generosity in 2013.

Refunds are coming

Faber’s change of heart comes at a price, because he not only announced that Senate Republicans would now vote to shut down Internet cafes, but he asked that they return any campaign contributions received from the industry’s lobbyists this year.

To some, that may sound like a high price to pay, but the potential cost to the party’s credibility could have been even higher, especially after last week’s “steakhouse caucus” was revealed.

Faber said that after the meeting with law enforcers, he became “convinced that these entities are not only illegal but many of them also engage in criminal activities within their facilities.” That dire assessment was coupled with an appellate court’s recent ruling that several Cleveland area Internet cafes were clearly illegal gambling houses.

Attorney General DeWine already had begun using that court ruling to inspire local prosecutors and police departments to launch raids on Internet cafes.

That set up a potentially embarrassing contrast between the administrative arm of government that was aggressively pushing enforcement of Ohio’s gambling laws and the legislative arm that was dithering over whether it should clarify the law.

An enduring mystery

We continue to be surprised that 800 gambling joints managed to open up in a state that has a clear constitutional prohibition against gambling. It took constitutional amendments to create the Ohio lottery commission more than 40 years ago. And it took several attempts to amend the Ohio Constitution to allow casino gambling before voters approved an amendment in 2008. That amendment allowed the opening of four casinos, specifically in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Toledo.

All the Internet cafe operators needed were some storefronts, some video terminals that gave the illusion that the players were seated at slot machines and the brazenness to claim that the players weren’t really gambling their money away.

It took the Ohio Senate an inexplicably long time to see the light.

We doubt that the Internet cafe owners will give up without a fight. They were already challenging DeWine’s crackdown. But as we said the other day, if they want to operate in Ohio they have to do what others have done: convince Ohio’s voters to amend the constitution.

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