COLUMBUS, Ohio - A bill that would immediately halt the expansion of Internet cafes in Ohio cleared a legislative panel Tuesday evening and was headed for a vote by the full state Senate.
The measure would extend a current moratorium on the opening of new sweepstakes gambling operations until June 2014, as lawmakers consider a ban on the facilities. The legislation also would require operators of current facilities to file more thorough affidavits of existence with the state. And those who don't submit a new affidavit could face a fine of up to $1,000 a day.
The state's attorney general could also prosecute an operator or employee for providing false information on the new form.
The Senate's government oversight committee cleared the measure on Tuesday. A full Senate vote could come on Wednesday. Should it pass, the bill would then go to the House for consideration.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine calls the cafes illegal gambling operations and wants them shut down. The industry calls them legal. Patrons buy cards for phone and Internet time with chances to play computer games that operate like slot machines with cash prizes.
DeWine told the committee in testimony Tuesday that the operations were "mini casinos." He described them as unregulated and a drain on law enforcement resources.
"I believe they're consumer rip-offs," he said.
At the urging of some of the state's top law enforcers, Ohio Senate President Keith Faber said last week that a majority of his Republican caucus now agrees the cafes are involved in criminal activities, including illegal gambling, and should be outlawed.
DeWine, also a Republican, led a raid on six of the facilities in the Cleveland area in the wake of a pivotal 8th District Court of Appeals ruling that concluded the operations were obvious gambling schemes. He says prosecuting these cafes is complicated and costly, and police already have their hands full with everything from overdose deaths from heroin and illegally obtained prescription painkiller sales to child abuse and child pornography investigations.
"That to me is the most compelling reason," he said, appealing to the committee to support the ban.
Faber has said he expects the ban to move quickly. The House passed a similar proposal earlier this year and cleared a bill last year to regulate the facilities.
More than 620 cafes are currently operating in the state, according to the attorney general's office.
DeWine filed lawsuits Tuesday against three locations that failed to file affidavits of existence after a statewide moratorium went into effect last year.
He said in a statement that while investigators were verifying affidavits of existence, agents from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation identified the locations as operating an Internet cafe without having filed an affidavit. The violations alleged in the lawsuits include opening a new sweepstakes establishment in violation of the current moratorium and failure to file an affidavit certifying existence.
The statewide moratorium prohibited new Internet cafes from opening after June 11, 2012. It's set to expire this June.