Ohioans could vote on ‘cafe’ bill

Referendum planned to retain Internet ‘sweepstakes’ stores


COLUMBUS — Internet “sweepstakes” cafes want to ask voters to overturn a law recently signed by Gov. John Kasich that is designed to put them out of business.

The newly formed Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs on Monday filed a petition that it says contains the minimum 1,000 signatures needed to put referendum language before Attorney General Mike DeWine. If the attorney general agrees that the language accurately describes what the ballot issue would do, the committee could begin circulating petitions to put a referendum on the law on the ballot.

By the time the statutory deadline for submitting nearly 250,000 valid registered voters' signatures passes in early September, the deadline to make this year’s ballot also will have passed.

That means that if the petition drive succeeds, the law would be on hold until the November, 2014 general election, when the referendum would go to voters.

House Bill 7, sponsored by Rep. Matt Huffman (R., Lima), is designed to remove the profit motive from “sweepstakes” machines that Mr. DeWine and other critics argue look and act too much like slot machines. Slots are legal only at four voter-approved casinos and, in another form, at racetrack slots parlors.

The law would prohibit cash payouts for the machines and limit noncash prize values to no more than $10.

The café owners, however, argue that the machines are not gambling but rather promotional tools to sell long-distance phone cards and Internet time.

The promotions' outcomes are predetermined and therefore cannot be considered games of chance, they say.

If successful, the referendum would void the law and take lawmakers back to square one on the issue.

Even if voters should ultimately refuse to repeal the law, just putting the question on the ballot would buy the cafés another year of existence.

The café operators and their patrons support regulation of the industry rather than what amounts to an outright ban on its existence.