By Marc Kovac
Owners of sweepstakes parlors across the state and their supporters submitted more than 433,000 petition signatures to the secretary of state’s office Tuesday, with hopes of overturning a new law that likely would put most of them out of business.
The Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs needs about 231,000 valid names from registered Ohio voters to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.
Over the next few weeks, county elections officials will review the petitions to verify signatures, and backers of the amendment would be allowed extra time to gather more names if they fall short.
If they are successful, the Internet Cafe prohibitions approved by lawmakers earlier this year and set to take effect today would be postponed until after next year’s general election.
“It’s a citizen’s veto of House Bill 7,” Matt Dole, campaign spokesman, told reporters Tuesday. He added, “Assuming we gathered enough signatures, the stores can stay open until the vote in November 2014, and if we’re successful, it will simply take House Bill 7 off the books.”
House Bill 7 banned cash payouts, capped prize values at $10 and required increased registration and oversight of sweepstakes parlors.
Proponents, including Attorney General Mike DeWine, say the law changes were needed because sweepstakes parlors are skirting state law and constitutional provisions to offer unregulated gambling, with the storefronts often becoming havens for money laundering and other illegal activities.
But cafe owners say their businesses are operating legally, selling products (often phone cards) or services (often Internet access) to customers. They launched the referendum effort to overturn House Bill 7, and they want lawmakers to change state law to allow them to stay in business.
“We are for regulation, just so everybody understands that,” said Rob Dabish, owner of one of the largest group of sweepstakes parlors in the state. “We would like to get rid of the rogue operators. ... We are a legitimate retail establishment... We’re not what Mr. DeWine says, gambling establishments that do drug trafficking and stuff like that.”
Opponents of the referendum called on county boards to “carefully review questionable referendum signatures,” alleging petition circulators were not forthright about the effort.
“Internet-cafe operatives have resorted to deception, mischaracterizations and plain, old-fashioned lying to collect their signatures,” Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling, said in a released statement. “We urge county boards of elections to carefully review these petitions. We also ask individuals who may have signed these petitions under false pretenses to contact their local county board of elections and have their names removed from these petitions.”