COLUMBUS - Despite arguments it was turning law-abiding Ohioans into criminals overnight, the Ohio Senate yesterday overwhelmingly voted to outlaw so-called games of skill that critics claim are really illegal slot machines.
"The face of this bill before us is not Chuck E. Cheese," Sen. Jeff Jacobson (R., Vandalia) said. "It's not a bowling alley. It's not innocent people playing darts and being afraid they're going to be caught in some web.
"This is about people who deliberately set out to create and exploit an incredibly large loophole so that they could steal money from Ohioans, millions upon millions of dollars," he said.
But Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), one of just seven senators to oppose the bill on final passage, argued that it would instantly make criminals of people who have so far won nearly all court fights to prevent the governor and attorney general from doing away with the cash-paying machines under current law.
He also questioned how the chamber could cast such a vote just months after overwhelmingly approving a separate bill to legalize cash-paying instant-racing machines at racetracks, machines that critics also have characterized as slot machines in disguise. That bill has been stymied in the House.
"There was never in this state a vote of the people on games of skill, not once," Mr. Seitz said. "What the voters have said 'no' to is slot machines."
The House is expected to approve Senate changes as early as next week, and Gov. Ted Strickland is expected to sign it. Much of the bill contains language contained in an executive order the governor had issued, enforcement of which has been stymied by the courts.
The bill prohibits electronic machines providing cash payouts as well as machines that provide noncash prizes valued at more than $10.
Before sending the bill to the full chamber, a Senate committee inserted a provision that Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) said is designed to protect bowling, dart, and pool tournaments that award cash prizes, including electronic versions.
"When you look at the new skill games, you've got a lot of parlors out there, a lot of bars that are using the income generated from the new skill games to pay their mortgages, and it did help them with their bottom line," said David Corey, spokesman for the Ohio Coin Machine Association. "I definitely think it's going to hurt them."
While the addition of the tournament language helped ease his fears, it did not appease bar and game parlor owners who argued lawmakers were passing the revised bill without hearings involving the public.
The bill passed by a final vote of 26-7. It passed as an emergency measure so it will take effect immediately as soon as Mr. Strickland affixes his signature. Usually, a new law takes effect 90 days later.
Among senators representing northwest Ohio, only Sen. Larry Mumper (R., Marion) opposed the bill. Sens. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), and Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta) supported it.
- Jim Provance