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Ohio crackdown on Internet cafes runs out of time

Ann Sanner, Associated Press

Internet cafe backers rally in opposition to Ohio House bill 605 in a downtown Cleveland hotel Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. The bill, passed by the House last week and pending before a Ohio Senate committee, amounts to a virtual ban on Internet cafes. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Don't bet on a crackdown this year on gambling operations in Ohio known as Internet cafes.

The Ohio Senate won't act before the session ends this month on a proposal that amounts to a virtual ban on the game parlors, Senate spokeswoman Angela Meleca said Tuesday.

Senate President Tom Niehaus has told his Republican caucus that he would not bring the bill to a vote, citing a lack of time to fully vet the measure, Meleca said.

The Senate aims to finish its work for the year by Thursday.

The bill was approved by a 2-to-1 margin in House earlier this month. It would shut down nearly all of the estimated 800 sites by narrowly defining what counts as a sweepstake.

Opponents say the Internet cafe computer games that operate like slot machines with cash prizes amount to illegal gambling.

Customers pay for Internet time or phone cards and use them to bet points on computers loaded with games such as poker. Operators say they sell legitimate products with a chance to win a prize.

The announcement of the proposal's demise this session came on the heels of a packed Senate hearing on the issue.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has led the push to get rid of the businesses. He told a Senate panel on Tuesday that the amount of cash flowing through the operations made them ripe places for money laundering, organized crime and drug dealings.

Plus, he said cafes offered the chance for consumers to be scammed. "We don't know what the payout is to the people who go into these Internet cafes," he said.

It's been nearly two years since lawmakers first began weighing what to do about these sweepstakes games that are largely unregulated and don't face the same scrutiny as casinos and other games of chance. Some favored new regulations while others wanted a ban on the Internet cafes.

DeWine told lawmakers he preferred a ban, but he would leave the decision up to the state Legislature. "The status quo is simply unacceptable," he added.

The Republican attorney general said later Tuesday that he was disappointed the Senate wouldn't consider the bill.

"I'm optimistic that the momentum on this issue will continue and the new General Assembly will act early next year," DeWine said in a statement.

Opponents to the bill lined the hearing room behind DeWine. Many wore T-shirts claiming the measure would take away their jobs.

Owners and employees of Internet cafes had rallied in Cleveland on Monday, warning that forcing them out of business could cost 4,000 jobs or more.