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Published: Wednesday, 5/22/2013 - Updated: 2 years ago

Ohio Senate expected to vote today on Internet cafe bill


COLUMBUS — Just months after the Ohio Senate killed a similar bill, the stage was set Tuesday for a vote on a measure that is expected to put hundreds of Internet “sweepstakes” cafes across the state out of business.

“The confines of the bill would not allow operations as we know them today,” said Sen. David Burke (R., Marysville), chairman of the Senate State Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

Despite arguments from café owners that they’re being unfairly painted with too broad a brush, a Senate that months ago seemed more interested in recognizing and regulating the businesses appears to be intent on killing them.

“I run a clean café, and I sleep well enough at night knowing that,” said Marvin Carrel, manager of Buckeye Internet Café in Ashville.

The committee voted 7-4 to send House Bill 7 to the full Senate for a vote today without making any changes. If the full Senate does the same, the bill will head directly to Gov. John Kasich’s desk for his signature without having to return to the House.

Sponsored by Rep. Matt Huffman (R., Lima), the bill seeks to remove the profit motive from the “sweepstakes” machines by banning cash payouts and capping the value of non-cash prizes at $10.

Attorney General Mike DeWine has urged lawmakers to crack down on the cafes, arguing that the sweepstakes machines look and act a lot like slot machines that are legal in Ohio only at Hollywood Casino Toledo, three other voter-approved casinos, and, in another variation, at racetracks.

The issue could yet end up before the courts, Mr. Burke noted.

“Everybody wanted me to move this thing through with lightning speed. I think now they’re starting to realize this thing’s an onion, and we’ve crafted…what we believe to be the best solution," he said.

The café operators, however, argue that the sweepstakes aren’t gambling but rather a promotional tool to sell long-distance phone cards and Internet time. Patrons can use points on the phone card or their purchased Internet time to play the games that can lead to cash payouts that are predetermined and not games of chance.

Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), a committee member, voted against reporting the bill to the full Senate, but she stressed afterward that that doesn’t necessarily reflect how she’ll vote on final passage.

“I just feel it needs to be vetted more…,” she said. 

As the Senate considers the bill today, the House is expected to approve a separate Senate-passed measure designed to buy lawmakers more time to implement any new law. The Senate bill would extend the current moratorium on the opening and expansion of such cafes through June 20, 2014.

Some 800 cafes, 49 of them in Lucas County, registered with the state a year ago when the current moratorium, set to expire June 30, was put in place.

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

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