Last week, the Ohio Senate gave Internet cafes and sweepstakes parlors a big break. The chairman of the State Government Oversight & Reform Committee said his members needed more time to study a House bill that would shut down more than 800 storefront operations, viewed by law enforcement officials and state Attorney General Mike DeWine as outlets for illegal gambling.
The goal set for passing legislation? By the end of 2014, announced committee chairman Dave Burke, a Marysville Republican. And where did Burke go next? Straight to a Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, where, according to the Columbus Dispatch, lobbyists for a firm that provides software and technical support for the cafes and parlors were waiting.
Burke and other senators denied the dinner was a fundraiser, just a chance to meet with parties interested in a piece of legislation. Still, senators were concerned enough about appearances to abruptly shift the venue to another Columbus restaurant, after learning that a Dispatch reporter had been tipped off about the Hyde Park get-together.
The episode highlights the growing coziness between lobbyists for the sweepstakes operations and members of the Senate. Publicly, senators talk about a wide-ranging review of gambling in Ohio, one that would regulate parlors and cafes rather than closing them. Last week’s incident at the Columbus steakhouse suggests a darker side, the backroom politics involved as lobbyists reward those who keep them in business.
A Columbus Dispatch analysis shows the high stakes, interests backing sweepstakes parlors and Internet cafes donating more than $110,000 to legislators and their caucuses last year, most of it going to Republicans. The House-passed bill, which would end cash prizes for the parlors and cafes, effectively putting them out of business, has become one of the most lobbied of the legislative session.
Unlike casino gambling, approved by voters, and video lottery terminals at horse racing tracks, approved by the Lottery Commission, the expansion of sweepstakes games happened with no state oversight. Regulation would assure lawmakers of more donations, but at the unacceptable price of a further expansion of gambling.