The likelihood of quick action to crack down on Internet cafes and sweepstakes parlors has faded, unfortunately. Leaders in the Ohio Senate say they want to fold the issue into a comprehensive review of gambling, to be undertaken by the Permanent Joint Committee on Gaming and Wagering. The committee was created in 2010 by legislation regulating casinos.
Such a comprehensive legislative overview is long overdue — so long overdue that events have overtaken it. John Kasich promised a review of gambling in 2011. The governor then reversed course, opening the door to slots-like video lottery terminals at horse tracks. In 2009, gambling interests seized the initiative, voters approving a constitutional amendment allowing four casinos. Since it was formed, the joint committee has not held a single public meeting.
The storefront sweepstakes operations require immediate attention. They have sprouted all over Ohio, unregulated by the state and unauthorized by the legislature or voters. Law enforcement officials rightly see the storefronts as an illegal expansion of gambling, places with the potential for money laundering and other crimes.
None of the other issues noted by state Sen. Bill Coley, who chairs the joint committee, rises to the same level of importance. Coley has in mind, for example, using electronic technology to track cash more closely in various gambling operations.
Earlier this month, the House reflected the urgency on Internet cafes, for the second time in three months passing a tough bill likely to put most sweepstakes parlors and Internet cafes out of business. The bill would ban cash prizes and limit the value of merchandise given as prizes to $10.
There is risk in delay. First, a moratorium on new cafes and parlors is due to expire in June, uncomfortably close to Coley’s time frame for an overview to be concluded, by the time the legislature breaks in July. Second, the delay gives time for storefront operators to argue the sweepstakes games they offer on computer terminals merely are an incentive to purchase phone cards or Internet time. That argument is backward. The reason the storefronts sell phone cards and Internet time is to provide customers a way to win money. Simply put, they are in the gambling business.