Internet cafe ban on hold

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Opponents of an Ohio law that effectively bans storefront sweepstakes parlors have submitted enough signatures to block the law from taking effect on Wednesday.

The signatures still have to be verified by local elections boards. But the petitions, from the Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs, will keep the law from kicking in at least temporarily while the signatures are checked.

The group filed almost 434,000 signatures in its effort to put the measure to a repeal vote next year, according to Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office. The committee needs more than 231,000 valid signatures to place a referendum on the November 2014 ballot.

If the committee reaches the required number of signatures, enforcement of the law is suspended until voters have a say as to whether it should be tossed out. In the 14-month interim, so-called Internet cafes could operate in the state.

Committee spokesman Matt Dole said the group is confident it met the state’s rules, although it’s prepared to gather additional signatures if necessary.

Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling, which is backed by casinos, urged county boards on Tuesday to carefully scrutinize the signatures. The group has claimed that signature gatherers have misrepresented the referendum’s purpose.

“We also ask individuals who may have signed these petitions under false pretenses to contact their local county board of elections and have their names removed,” group spokesman Carlo LoParo said in a written statement.

Husted has directed county boards of election to finish validating signatures by Sept. 20.

A count by the Ohio attorney general’s office found that more than 620 Internet cafes are in operation across the state, representing growing competition to legalized casinos and games held for charity. There are five in Columbiana County, 37 in Mahoning County and 47 in Trumbull County, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s website.

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.

The opposition group wants legislators to pass a new law that regulates the industry and shuts down what it calls rogue operators.

Storeowner Robert Dabish runs more than 20 cafes across the state, including locations in Toledo, Findlay and Columbus. He said he welcomes regulation of his business, not a policy that he says would cost the state jobs. He employs more than 160 people.

“If this industry were to close, they’re going to be gone,” Dabish told reporters at the secretary of state’s office. “They’re going to be on the streets.”

Backers of the measure say the parlors harbor illegal gambling. They caution that no single law enforcement agency has authority to investigate or pursue criminal charges statewide for any illegal activity at the cafes, which they say leaves the industry open to money laundering and other crimes.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed legislation in May that halted the expansion of Internet cafes, extended a moratorium on any new cafes and required those currently in operation to submit new affidavits to the state.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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