Ohio lawmakers approve Internet cafe crackdown

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A proposal that would effectively ban Internet cafes targeted as illegal gambling operations cleared the Ohio Legislature on Wednesday after more than two years of wrangling.

The Ohio Senate passed the measure on 27-6 vote, less than a year after blocking passage of a similar bill. Testimony by owners and employees of sweepstakes parlors failed to persuade legislators that the more than 620 cafes should continue and are legal.

Senate Republicans announced a change of heart on the legality of the cafes last month after a briefing by top state law enforcers, including Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign the measure, and the House was set Wednesday to vote on a bill extending Ohio's moratorium on the cafes and imposing a new reporting requirement.

More than 620 Internet cafes are in operation across the state, representing growing competition to legalized casinos and games held for charity. At the storefronts, patrons buy cards for phone and Internet time with chances to play computer games that operate like slot machines with cash prizes.

Proponents have stressed that Internet cafes are operating legally, a position intermittently undercut by the courts. While acknowledging the existence of "a few bad actors," they describe most of the cafes as harmless mom-and-pop businesses that are doing nothing wrong.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, delivered what he said was a eulogy for the industry, and he estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people would be put out of work because of the legislation.

An opponent of the bill, Seitz said many cafes could be regulated through proper licensure and taxation.

"The single biggest flaw in this bill is that it takes the approach, shoot them all and let God sort it out," he said.

He questioned whether the measure was a nonissue, saying he hasn't received any complaints from his constituents about them.

State Sen. Jim Hughes, a Columbus Republican, cautioned that no single law enforcement agency had jurisdiction or authority to investigate or pursue criminal charges statewide for any illegal activity at the cafes.

"There's no safeguards that apply to Internet cafes, which leaves this industry open for a multitude of unregulated activity, such as money laundering and other crimes," Hughes told his colleagues as he urged support for the bill.

DeWine has taken the position that the cafes are illegal gambling operations and recently stepped up his own crackdown out of frustration at a lack of legislative action.

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