State lawmakers returning to work this month are facing the same dilemma about Internet cafes they did last year: What to do with them.
A decision by the president of the Ohio Senate to not have a vote at the end of 2012 on an House-approved bill regulating the businesses has lawmakers there and in the Ohio House back at scratch, with at least one local representative hoping for a resolution by the Fourth of July.
And while lawmakers continue to tread water, some owners of the cafes are mounting an organized effort, including starting a website, to fend off regulations that would essentially eliminate the establishments.
Tribune Chronicle illustration
House Bill 605 won House approval 63 to 30 but didn't go anywhere in the Senate because there was little time for chamber members to address the issue.
It essentially amounted to a ban on Internet cafes by prohibiting giving away cash and capping the value of prizes at $10.
A competing bill - House Bill 195 - would have set less strict rules, but it never made out of committee.
Where the cafes are
Local Internet cafes by community:
Hubbard - 6
Girard - 3
Warren - 24
Niles - 5
Cortland - 2
Vienna, Masury, Leavittsburg, Bristol, North Bloomfield, Mineral Ridge and Newton Falls - 1
Boardman - 7
Youngstown - 16
Austintown - 7
Struthers - 2
Campbell - 2
Canfield, Poland and Liberty* - 1
SOURCE: Ohio Attorney General's Office, based on affidavits received by the office from cafes. *The attorney general lists the location as Liberty but in Mahoning County.
What's going to happen this year is anyone's guess, but one lawmaker sees a divide beginning to form.
Democrat State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, who introduced a bill in March 2012 to regulate the cafes, said a split is taking shape between those who want to eliminate the operations, also known as sweepstakes cafes, and lawmakers who want to see them regulated.
Schiavoni, of Boardman, said the cafes should be allowed to stay open, but with reasonable regulations. Players need to understand the odds of the games, the odds need to be posted inside the building and there needs to be fees in place to operate, he said.
His bill was surpassed by a decision to put into place a moratorium on new parlors and require those existing cafes to file paperwork with the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
The latest count by the state shows 821 cafes in Ohio. In Trumbull County, there are 47 and in Mahoning County, 37.
To play, 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.
Opponents say the Internet cafe computer games that operate like slot machines with cash prizes amount to illegal gambling.
Schiavoni said if the games are regulated as gambling, it could create a new issue, because the only way to expand gambling in Ohio is by changing the state's constitution by going to voters.
''I believe at the end of the day, something will be done, but what that something is, I can't be sure,'' Schiavoni said.
Attempts to reach owners of several local establishments to comment were not successful.
Bryan Sanshuck, executive director of the Internet Cafe Coalition of Ohio, said ''heavy'' behind the scenes, negotiations are happening with lawmakers for ''fair regulation and not an elimination of the industry.''
''Regulation is a good thing,'' he said. ''When you eliminate something, it affects many, many thousands of people statewide.''
The group is focused on saving jobs - about 16,000 are tied to the industry - and saving the revenue municipalities receive from putting fees on the cafes, he said.
Sanshuck, an industry consultant who said he doesn't currently own any cafes, said House Bill 605 would have ''killed everyone in the industry,'' plus it would have hurt other business, like food and coffee vendors and pizza shops.
The group has a website, www.internetcafecoalition.com.
The temporary ban expires at the end of June, enough time for lawmakers to vet the issue and ''take real consideration on it,'' said state Rep. Tom Letson, a Democrat who represents part of Trumbull County.
House Bill 605 was ''too much, too late'' said Letson, yet he supported it, because he believed lawmakers in the new General Assembly would revisit the issue.
''As long as we're going to have casinos and racinos, I really don't see the problem with Internet cafes or sweepstakes parlors, so long as we regulate them, we license them, we audit them and we can use some of the profits for local government funds and addiction services,'' Letson said.
House Bill 605's competitor got stuck in committee, but committee Democrats led by ranking member, state Rep. Ron Gerberry of Austintown, agreed on amendments that would have funneled some of the gross receipts from parlors toward addiction services and local governments.
A third amendment would have capped the number of cafes, not allowing any more in Ohio, Gerberry said. Other provisions included per machine fees, licensing and prohibiting the transfer or selling of that license, Gerberry said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.