If a bill introduced last week to ban Internet cafes turns out to be over-reaching, then the state should at least regulate and tax the ''gambling'' operations.
Prosecutors, county commissioners, law enforcement organizations and the Fraternal Order of Police have implored state lawmakers to act. State Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, responded. The Republican majority floor leader for House Speaker William Batchelder introduced the bill to ban Internet cafes by redefining sweepstakes.
Huffman told the Columbus Dispatch that the bill could pass by the end of the year.
At Internet cafes, customers purchase phone or Internet time. Based on how much they spend, they are awarded points to play games on computers. Points won in games can be exchanged for money.
Some do not consider the practice gambling. They make comparisons to corporate scratch-off games like the McDonald's restaurants sweepstakes, saying customers pay for the product and get to play the sweepstakes games for free.
Others do consider the cafes to be gambling dens and have acted against them. This has led to uneven law enforcement.
Here in Trumbull County, which has 37 internet cafes, fifth-most among Ohio's 88 counties, Prosecutor Dennis Watkins considers them illegal gambling operations and has supported raids on some of them. Despite Watkins' opinion, local police departments have resisted shutting down the cafes and thus, most of them continue to flourish.
Likewise in Mahoning County, which has the seventh-most number of the cafes.
Statewide there are 819 Internet cafes. Attorney General Mike DeWine convinced the legislature to pass a moratorium on new cafes through June while the state determines their legality.
Even if Huffman's bill becomes law, what happens to the existing 819 businesses is unclear.
Ohioans passed constitutional amendments for four casinos and slot machines at racetracks, including one being built in Austintown. In other words, Buckeye state voters have opened the door for gambling.
But what Ohoians approved is a heavily regulated industry that requires large percentage payouts to players and substantial tax payments to state, county and local governments. As it stands now, Internet cafes are not obligated to show where profits go. Their owners do not have to pass background checks. They have no required payout. They are not subject to inspections. They are assessed no fees.
Except where the local communities require it. Willowick, for example, collects $100,000 per year from its four Internet cafes and government officials in the Cleveland suburb consider them clean, respectable, trouble-free businesses. The money goes into the general fund, as it does in Westlake, another Cleveland suburb with Internet cafe fees.
No Trumbull County community has passed such regulations.
Nationwide, this is a $10 billion industry that has struck a nerve with the owners of casinos and racetracks, such as those approved by Ohio voters, for siphoning off their customers. With that kind of money, lobbying will continue to be forceful.
For that reason, Huffman's proposal might end up labeled as too over-reaching, especially toward the existing cafes. If so, strict regulations, including fees, are the minimum standards that should be passed.