Marysville News

State lawmakers may ban sweepstake cafes

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JOSHUA A. BICKEL/THISWEEKNEWS
Internet Sweepstakes Cafe owner Jim Glass stands inside his business Nov. 29. The Ohio Statehouse is considering a bill that would outlaw these types of businesses, where patrons can play online sweepstakes and win prizes or cash.
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An ordinance approved in September to regulate Internet cafes and skill game rooms in Marysville may be superceded by state legislation that would ban those businesses entirely.

Marysville Mayor John Gore asked city council to impose a moratorium on regulating Internet sweepstake cafes and skill game rooms in the city in Dec. 2011. Council's public affairs committee tackled the subject in January and spent eight months listening to comments from business owners and residents.

Committee chair person Deborah Groat called the work "premiere legislation for the state."

Today she stands by that statement. "I am so glad that we were on the proactive forefront -- that we aren't sitting here panicking, waiting for Columbus to tell us what to do. I think that's marvelous," Groat said.

There are actually two bills making their way through the Statehouse. House Bill 605 was introduced Nov. 15 by state Rep. Matt Huffman, (R-Lima.) It redefines sweepstakes, which could lead to a ban of Internet cafes in Ohio. It was assigned to the Judiciary and Ethics Committee.

House Bill 195 was introduced in April 2011. It calls for licensing skill-based amusement machine operators and distributors and sweepstakes terminal device operators and distributors. It also would change current laws governing bingo and other gambling. It was assigned to the State Government and Elections Committee.

The Columbus Dispatch reported the two bills may be combined and that legislators are expected to make a move on the issue by the end of the year.

Marysville city leaders expressed frustration with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office at the end of last year when Gore sent a message to DeWine, saying loopholes in the laws governing Internet cafes needed to be closed.

"His advice back to me was, 'you need to do something locally because we still aren't able to determine what all this means,' "Gore said last December.

In the end, Groat said the committee's work is still valuable to Marysville.

"I found the process as challenging and good for the city as the outcome was," she said.

"We were able to get to know three business people who were on the up and up. They were all helpful and we took in community opinion, so we know how the community feels about this stuff.

"I think the process is much more important than the outcome sometimes," Groat added.

Jim Glass, owner of the Internet Sweepstakes Cafe in Marysville, is also happy with the city's progress.

"I think what Marysville has done is very accommodating to the citizens and the businesses. It works for everyone," Glass said.

"I would hate to lose any business," Groat said. "I do understand legislation that says the state doesn't want these businesses. I personally don't agree with it and I think the process by going through our legislation left me in no doubt that we can handle these businesses and still be friends with them."

The tone at the Statehouse is a little different. Opponents of the establishments are sending a message to state lawmakers that Internet sweepstakes cafes and skill game rooms are nothing but trouble.

Jay McDonald, president of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 25,000 members statewide, sent a letter to Gov. John Kasich, Attorney General Mike DeWine and state legislative leaders.calling the cafes illegal gambling operations. He said they could be used as fronts for other, more serious crimes, such as money-laundering and racketeering.

Groat said no matter what state lawmakers decide, Marysville was ahead of the game.

"I'm not the least bit upset about Columbus passing a ban, if they do, if the legislature ends up passing it," she said. "And if we lose those businesses because of state legislation, I'm still happy with what we did."

Alan Johnson of The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.

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