By THOMAS J. SHEERANCLEVELAND (AP) â¿¿ Owners and employees of storefront gambling operations in Ohio known as Internet cafes rallied Monday and warned that forcing them out of business could cost 4,000 jobs or more. Internet cafe backers met in a hotel ballroom carrying placards reading "Please save our jobs" and "All I want for Christmas is my job." They said the scene would be replayed in the next few days in Columbus as a possible Ohio Senate vote on the issue approaches. Last week, the Ohio House approved a proposal that amounts to a virtual ban on Ohio's hundreds of Internet cafes, most located across the northern part of the state. An Ohio Senate committee takes up the bill Tuesday. Several cities have sought to close the cafes, only to lose in the courts. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has led the push to get rid of the businesses, saying there was no guarantee the sweepstakes games were fair and that there was no way to track where the money goes. Bryan Sanshuck, an Internet cafe operator and industry consultant, said it would be terrible if lawmakers enact a ban and put people out of work before the holidays. "Ohioans do not fire Ohioans three weeks before Christmas," he said. Jon Ballog, who operates an Internet cafe in Chardon, east of Cleveland, said a ban would create an economic hardship for operators who typically have spent from $100,000 to $300,000 or more to open shop. "There's a lot of operators out there currently who opened stores who still haven't recouped their investment," he said. "Some of these people are going to go bankrupt. They've taken credits out, they've taken second mortgages to pay for these businesses and get them off the ground." State Rep. Bill Patmon, a Cleveland Democrat, said the expansion of gambling with casinos in Ohio and slot machines at race tracks means the state is favoring some businesses over others.
"Government should not pick winners and losers," Patmon said. If Cleveland's casino is allowed to operate, he said, "it ought to be OK for the small business person in the neighborhood who's creating jobs."State Rep. Kenny Yuko, a Democrat from suburban Richmond Heights and an opponent of the Internet cafe ban, said the uncertainties of a lame-duck session meant the cafe ban could get derailed in the final rush to adjourn. 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.