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Published: Wednesday, 5/9/2012

Ohio Senate to vote on bill regulating state's gambling

Panel axes provision limiting charity card rooms

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF
The Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland is scheduled to open Monday as the first in the state. The Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland is scheduled to open Monday as the first in the state.
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COLUMBUS -- A bill that tries to bring order to Ohio's multiple moving parts when it comes to casinos, racetrack slots parlors, and other gambling is headed for a full Senate vote as early as today.

But the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday stripped from it a controversial provision that would have allowed each of Ohio's 88 counties to designate a single privately run card room that uses professional dealers to run Texas Hold 'Em, poker, blackjack, and other card tournaments for charities.

The provision faced opposition from Gov. John Kasich as well as questions from House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina).

"We're just going to save all the charitable card room revisions for a separate bill on charitable gaming that we're currently working on," said Sen. Bill Coley (R., West Chester), the committee's chairman.

Currently, only Cuyahoga County has designated such a facility. In addition to removing Senate language that would have expressly allowed that practice to spread statewide, the committee removed a provision inserted by the House to give Cuyahoga, and only Cuyahoga, clear legal standing to keep its facility.

Mr. Coley pointed to a letter that the committee received from the mayor of Garfield Heights, near Cleveland, which has its own charity poker location. The mayor worried that his town might lose its facility if each county were allowed only one.

"We're hearing rumors of that in other parts of the state," Mr. Coley said.

Concerns had been raised that a proliferation of county-designated rooms dedicated to Las Vegas-style card games could siphon money directly from the state's four new 24-hour casinos and indirectly from state, local government, and school coffers.

The first of those casinos, Horseshoe Casino, is to open Monday in downtown Cleveland.

"What we perceived, and I think other people perceived, was a problem with the language, the lack of licensing of card-room operators," said Bob Tenenbaum, spokesman for Penn National Gaming, Inc.

It is to open Ohio's second casino on the East Toledo riverfront May 29.

"This seems to be a real inappropriate way to deal with it," Mr. Tenenbaum said.

Although the bill would require the paid dealers in the card rooms to be licensed by the Ohio Casino Control Commission, it would exempt the facilities' owners from licensing. The owners, however, would receive up to 15 percent of the card room's take plus expenses before distributing profits to participating charities.

Senate Republicans had argued that current law in this area is murky and could allow a plethora of unregulated facilities across the state. But Mr. Batchelder said he does not believe these card rooms are currently legal. "I think that's fairly dubious," he said.

The bill also includes a moratorium lasting through June 30, 2013, on the opening of any new Internet "sweepstakes" cafes in the state.

Those are largely unregulated businesses that critics argue offer slot machines in disguise. Such businesses provide Internet time or phone minutes to allow customers to use electronic machines that might have cash payouts.

A separate bill pending before the committee would require that the state order such businesses to get licenses and be regulated by the casino commission. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D., Youngstown), said the moratorium included in the broader gambling bill doesn't go far enough.

"You're saying that no more can open up until we say so, but at the same time you're still going to have the same issues that everybody's facing in communities," he said. "I understand the reason for the moratorium, but I don't think it truly gets to the root of the problem."

He opposed outlawing sweepstakes cafes, noting that they are popular and that customers are not under any illusions that they are not gambling.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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