State lawmakers took a big step toward banning Internet cafe “sweepstakes” parlors, passing a bill Wednesday that would eliminate storefront gambling in Ohio.
The Ohio House of Representatives passed the bill in a 63 to 30 vote, sending it to the Senate to review in the final days of this two-year legislative session.
The bill, introduced just three weeks ago, would not outright ban sweepstakes operations. Under the bill, cafes could not award prizes greater than $10 and would have to register with the Ohio Attorney General’s office.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement agencies support the bill’s crackdown on the industry, which they say are, at best, illegal gambling establishments.
The Ohio General Assembly put a moratorium on new sweepstakes parlors last year and required all existing establishments to file an affidavit with the Attorney General.
More than 800 such establishments have filed affidavits, including more than 100 in the Miami Valley. More than 30 in Montgomery County alone.
Ohio law prohibits gambling except through the Ohio Lottery and at four casinos designated in the Ohio Constitution, which voters approved in referendum. Racinos operate video game machines resembling slots through the lottery.
Sweepstakes cafes offer slot-like games that operate as sweepstakes — the end result is predetermined, but the customer doesn’t find out until he or she plays a game. Customers purchase phone cards, internet time or another product in order to play the games.
Sweepstakes cafe owners argue they sell the products and nothing else. Robert Dabish, who operates more than 20 cafes, said the sweepstakes games at cafes are similar to sweepstakes sponsored by fast food restaurants and other companies — the goal is to bring in customers to sell more products. Dabish said the product at his cafes is phone time and many customers use the cards to make long distance phone calls.
Dabish and other cafe owners told lawmakers the bill would put most operations out of business and that they preferred the state license and regulate sweepstakes cafes as gambling establishments under the Ohio Casino Control Commission.
Lima Republican Rep. Matt Huffman, the bill’s co-sponsor said users cannot tell the difference and believe they are placing bets instead of revealing a predetermined result.
“I don’t think anybody with a straight face can say it isn’t gambling,” Huffman told reporters before the House vote. “It’s a use of the sweepstakes model that resembles gambling.”
DeWine said the proliferation of the cafes are a “crazy situation” and estimated hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent at sweepstakes cafes each year in Ohio.
The bill barely made it to the House floor Wednesday, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in favor and against. Some House Democrats worried shuttering the industry would put most of the industry’s estimated 4,000 employees out of work.
“Let’s fix it; don’t abolish it,” said Rep. Kenny Yuko, a Cleveland-area Democrat. “Let’s keep these people working.”