Internet cafés have friends in the Ohio Senate. Last year, a Senate committee allowed a bill to die that would have regulated the gambling sites. This year, leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate want to send a new version of the bill to a gambling study panel, lowering the odds of putting the unregulated mini-casinos out of business anytime soon.
At more than 800 storefronts in Ohio, customers buy Internet time or phone cards that they can use to play slot machine-like games for cash prizes. Owners claim the games are a marketing technique to sell Internet time.
This month, a three-judge panel of the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cleveland rejected that argument. The state court’s ruling upheld the gambling convictions of the owners of three Internet cafés, saying they had tried “to couch their illegal activities as legitimate business enterprises.”
The ruling mirrored concerns about the sweepstakes parlors expressed by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, local-government and law-enforcement officials, charitable and veterans groups, and fraternal organizations.
The presence of hundreds of arguably illegal gambling sites creates an urgency for state lawmakers to act. The more than 4,000 Ohioans who work in Internet cafés don’t deserve to be kept in limbo either. New Internet cafés are likely to open if lawmakers allow a moratorium to expire in June.
But instead of getting a vote, the Internet café bill is headed for the Permanent Joint Committee on Gaming and Wagering. The panel was created in 2010 to review Ohio gambling rules, fees, and penalties. It has never held a public meeting.
A review of the state’s ventures into legalized gambling is proper, even past due. Few issues the panel might discuss are as time-sensitive as Internet cafés.
Yet the panel’s chairman, state. Sen. Bill Coley (R., Butler County’s Liberty Township), hints it could be months before it offers recommendations. Mr. Coley, a self-styled “free market guy,” has said he doesn’t want to ban Internet cafés.
The Ohio Constitution is clear about what constitutes legal gambling. Sweepstakes parlors sell Internet time and phone cards to facilitate gambling, not the other way around.
A call for more discussion is merely an excuse to delay needed action to regulate illegal gambling out of business.
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