In clamping down on sweepstakes parlors earlier this year, the Ohio legislature unfortunately prolonged the fight. The bill signed into law in June lacked an emergency clause. That allowed opponents to stop the measure from going into effect as scheduled this week by filing signatures to put it on the ballot for a referendum.
It is no secret that parlor owners and operators have deep pockets. They donated more than $110,000 to legislators and their caucuses last year, most of it going to Republicans. Owners and operators are funding the committee behind the referendum. If the committee can gather enough valid signatures, the sweepstakes parlors will remain in business at least until the November 2014 general election, voters delivering the final word.
All along, backers of the referendum have been misleading, portraying themselves as local business owners offering computerized sweepstakes as an inducement to buy phone cards or Internet time. Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, and county prosecutors tell a different story. They have put some 50 parlors out of business for illegal gambling. DeWine also says the parlors harbor criminal activities such as money laundering.
The group backing the referendum, The Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs, is calling for regulation. The trouble is, the parlors sprang up as unregulated, unauthorized storefronts while all other forms of gambling are tightly regulated. What the committee is really trying to protect is an illegal expansion of gambling.
The legislature should lose no time approving a slightly different bill, with an emergency clause that short-circuits the referendum process. Such a bill passed the Senate as the referendum drive got under way, but the legislature adjourned before the House acted. Instead of banning cash payouts and prizes worth more than $10, the more recent effort would limit total prizes to no more than 5 percent of gross revenue, in effect a ban.
Speaker William Batchelder is expected to discuss the approach with his Republican caucus. He should look at the facts, including the illegal gambling convictions, and urge legislative action to put the sweepstakes parlors out of business.