A year has gone by since legislation was introduced to license and regulate storefront gambling in Ohio, the delay driving mounting frustration as the number of outlets expands. “It’s the wild West out there,” says Mike DeWine, the state attorney general. He is not far off, because the storefronts largely are uncontrolled.
DeWine’s office estimates there are some 280 Internet cafes in the state, most in northern Ohio, which sell customers prepaid phone cards or Internet access to play sweepstakes games on machines that resemble electronic slot machines. The casino-style games have nothing in common with promotional sweepstakes, as supporters argue. Looking under a bottle cap is one thing; feeding a slot machine is quite another.
DeWine is not alone in urging action to bring Internet cafes under state scrutiny and control. Pressure also is coming from townships (which lack regulatory authority), the state lottery director and operators of Ohio’s four casinos.
Summit County acted last year after officials in Springfield and Coventry townships complained. As reported this week by Rick Armon, a Beacon Journal staff writer, the county’s licensing requirements (affecting only townships) have decreased the number of operations from 17 to 11. Still, police officials are not sold completely, citing criminal activities, such as illegal back room gambling.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Youngstown Democrat, last week introduced a bill that would put Internet cafes under the appropriate oversight of the Ohio Casino Control Commission. Operators would have to get a license, post the odds and purchase their equipment from a state-licensed vendor, among other requirements. Unlike an earlier bill, Schiavoni’s would not cap the number of Internet cafes by county; neither bill addresses limits on payouts, capped at $10 for arcade games.
What DeWine rightly seeks is a statewide approach, ending the cat-and-mouse game that ultimately results when one local jurisdiction acts, but those nearby do not. Schiavoni’s bill would be improved by limitations on outlets and winnings. Still, it is preferable to no action at all, an invitation to yet another expansion of gambling.