When state lawmakers return to Columbus from their extended summer vacation, one of their first tasks should be to put the hundreds of unregulated — and arguably illegal — storefront mini-casinos that proliferate across Ohio out of business for good.
In June, the General Assembly approved, and Gov. John Kasich signed, a measure aimed at effectively banning the gambling sites, called “Internet cafés” or “sweepstakes parlors.” Such places enable patrons to play thinly disguised slot machines. Unlike full-fledged casinos, racetracks, and charity gaming operations in Ohio, the cafés are subject to little if any state regulation.
Enacting the law was the right thing to do: Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and other law-enforcement officials offer persuasive evidence that many of the cafés are venues for money laundering and related illegal activity, and prey on the lower-income communities in which they often are located.
But lawmakers neglected to include in the bill an emergency clause that would have permitted it to take effect immediately (a moratorium is in place on new or expanded cafés). That may have been an oversight, or it may have had something to do with the fact that Internet café owners are among Columbus’ most generous campaign contributors, especially to lawmakers in the Republican majority.
Whatever its cause, the lapse enabled a group of Internet café owners and operators — united under the pompous title “Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs” — to circulate petitions among Ohioans aimed at placing the law before voters to affirm or reject in November, 2014. They filed 434,000 signatures last week; the Secretary of State’s office and county election boards are checking the validity of the signatures.
Meanwhile, the Internet cafés will continue to operate — quite profitably. Lawmakers never should have permitted such ambiguity; it now is up to them to resolve it.
A separate Senate-approved bill would allow the café restrictions — in effect, a ban — to go into effect at once, superseding a referendum campaign that is sure to be expensive and divisive. The measure demands prompt approval by the state House.
Owners of Internet cafés argue that they are solid citizens who provide jobs and pay taxes. They insist that what they sell is not gambling, but rather online access and phone cards; the ability to play the sweepstakes machines, they say, is merely incidental. The law-enforcement record, including multiple convictions for illegal gambling, argues otherwise.
Fig leaves aside, the ills that attend unregulated gambling in Ohio — notably crime and economic exploitation — outweigh its ostensible benefits. Our state doesn’t need Internet cafés.
State lawmakers’ irresolution made this mess. It’s time they cleaned it up.