Wednesday, June 4, 2003

New gambling plan proposed for tracks

By Debra Jasper
Columbus Enquirer Bureau

COLUMBUS - A proposal introduced Tuesday would allow Ohioans to vote this November on bringing video slot machines to state horse race tracks and use the proceeds for education.

The measure from state Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Cincinnati, is expected to move quickly through the Ohio Senate.

Blessing and other backers of the measure say taxes on new forms of gambling could raise $500 million a year for college scholarships, school construction and other educational programs.

"One hundred percent of the money will go toward education," Blessing said.

The Cincinnati lawmaker failed last year to pass legislation to bring slot machines that offer poker, blackjack and other games to Ohio's seven horse race tracks. That bill didn't require a popular vote and spurred major opposition from the governor and other anti-gambling forces.

This time, however, Blessing appears to have won over some former foes, including Democrats such as Sen. Eric Fingerhut, of Cleveland.

Fingerhut, who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, says he agreed to vote for the bill when Republicans agreed to use an estimated $120 million each year in proceeds to pay for college scholarships for top students in Ohio's public high schools.

Modeled after a program in Georgia, the state could provide as much as $500 a year in scholarship money to each eligible student who stays in the state to attend college.

"This would address a serious concern we have about our top young people leaving the state, the so-called brain drain, and it would send a message about the priority we place on higher education," Fingerhut said.

He said he supports the bill because pro-gambling proponents have a "legitimate argument that much of the money generated by slot machines in other states is spent by Ohioans."

Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester, agrees that momentum is building behind Blessing's bill. He expects it to pass the Senate as early as next week.

"In general, I see gambling more as entertainment than economic development. But as long as people don't abuse it, that's fine," White said. "I'm not a gamer. The Bible is very clear that anybody who does anything in excess to harm the temple is falling short of God's purpose, but that can include laying out in the sun too long. You can carry anything too far."

The bill faces trouble in the House, where lawmakers have already passed a bill asking Ohioans to weigh in on casino gambling. But their version would ask voters to choose between expanding gambling or paying more in sales taxes to plug a projected $4 billion state budget deficit. A temporary sales tax increase from 5 percent to 6 percent is likely going to be part of a new state budget.

Under the House plan, the state would drop the sales tax in July 2004 if the gambling measure should be approved. If voters turned it down, the penny tax would last until July 2005.

House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said he was disappointed that the Senate rejected linking the sales tax and gambling.

Householder said House lawmakers only agreed to put video slot machines on the ballot as a way to keep tax rates lower. The Senate plan, he said, would charge people higher sales taxes and still bring in $500 million a year from slot machines.

"I'm a little concerned about having gambling for gambling's sake," Householder said.

Householder also raised concerns about the Senate's plan to spend part of the gambling money on college scholarships. He noted the state is struggling to meet its constitutional requirement to fairly fund elementary and high schools.

"Colleges are not where we have a constitutional issue," he said.

Blessing thinks most concerns can be resolved. "Of course, I'm worried about the House (vote), but I hope they can understand this money will be used to fix education funding," he said. "Higher education is another area we have to fund and scholarships help us do that."

He said opponents of gambling aren't being realistic. "They say, 'Don't bring gambling here,' but the people in my district just laugh because they know it's already here," he said.

Differences between the House and Senate versions would have to be reconciled.

Gov. Bob Taft opposes allowing gambling in Ohio, but his spokesman, Orest Holubec, said the governor has no power to veto a joint resolution to put the issue on the ballot.

While lawmakers debate the details, gambling proponents are eager to start the campaign to convince voters to agree to allow slot machines in Ohio. Huge dollars are at stake.

Mike Weiss, general manager at Beulah Park, a racetrack outside of Columbus, says the track's survival depends on whether voters approve video slots. He says the track just can't compete with West Virginia, where slot machines have raised enough money to allow race tracks to offer $11,000 purses compared to $3,800 purses in Ohio.

"A few years ago, the horses that weren't good enough to compete here went to West Virginia," he said. "It's not like that now. When I went down there I saw 19 out of 20 Ohio license plates and ran into so many people I knew, it was incredible."

Still, while neighboring states like West Virginia and Indiana have already allowed new forms of gambling, Ohio has twice defeated proposals to allow casinos.

John Edgar, chairman of the anti-gambling task force for the United Methodists in Ohio, hopes to continue that track record. He says video slot machines "would do more harm than good" for Ohioans.

"There is evidence across the country that revenues from gambling are not a stable source of income," he says.

"If legislators think we need more money to run the state, they should be finding appropriate ways to get it and have the courage of their convictions," Edgar said.


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