Wednesday, June 06, 2001

Lawmakers reconsider video slots

Voters could see issue on ballot in November

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — A political showdown over casino-style gambling is brewing again in the Ohio General Assembly.

        Lawmakers backing a proposal that would put thousands of video slot machines at Ohio's seven racetracks have already suffered two defeats this year. A third try, a resolution asking voters to approve the plan this November, could emerge for a vote within two weeks.

        Standing in the way are conservatives and religious leaders who oppose state-sponsored gambling. One promises this latest effort will fail, too.

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        “We think we can stop it,” Thomas A. Smith, the Ohio Council of Churches' public policy director, said Tuesday. “We do believe that this will not make it out of the Ohio Senate.”

        That's a bold statement, considering who supports the measure. The short list includes Ohio's top lawmakers, Senate President Richard Finan, R-Evendale, and House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford.

        “The last I counted we have the votes to get it out of committee,” Mr. Finan said. “I believe we have the votes to pass it on the floor” of the Senate.

        At stake is an issue that asks lawmakers to weigh the millions that could be raised to help fund schools and state programs against the problems of addictive gambling Mr. Smith says slot machines cause.

        The sponsor of the measure, Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Cincinnati, said the state loses $400 million each year when Ohioans visit riverboat casinos, racetracks and other gambling operations in neighboring states.

        “We have two choices. Either we can eliminate legal gambling in every surrounding state, or we can compete with them,” Mr. Blessing said. “We've got all of the (gambling) problems, but none of the money.”

        The resolution would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment granting the Ohio Lottery power to install, license and oversee slot machines at Ohio's racetracks.

        It describes the gambling machines as similar to instant-win lottery games.

        Supporters of the proposal estimate video slots would raise $818 million to $916 million in a full year of operation. Several officials, including Mr. Finan, say it would take a couple years before the state could start collecting that much money.

        The proposal emerged in March as one possible source of funds for a $3.2 billion school funding reform plan Mr. Householder and fellow Republican House lawmakers endorsed. The plan collapsed after Gov. Bob Taft vowed to veto it.

        House Republicans tried to revive the idea weeks later as part of a less expensive, $1.4 billion schools plan. Senate Republicans, however, refused to challenge the governor's threatened veto.

        Mr. Taft cannot veto an issue the House and Senate put on the ballot, though he has promised to campaign against it.

        A ballot question asking Ohio voters to approve casino gambling was defeated by a 2-1 ratio in 1996.


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