Sunday, June 22, 2003

Support fading for slot machines

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - The chances are getting slimmer that lawmakers will ask voters in November to put thousands of slot machines at Ohio's racetracks.

Supporters of the idea say it would raise up to $500 million a year for prescription drug price relief, school construction and college scholarships. Though they will try to advance the proposal in the state Senate this week, they must overcome several tough political obstacles.

Drug companies don't like it - at least, not yet. House lawmakers who supported video slots in the past say there's no need for them now. Senate President Doug White, R-Manchester, isn't exactly pushing to get slots passed, either.

"I'll not stop it if it has the votes," White said Friday. "There's a lot of people saying they can't support it. If not, it doesn't move."

The Senate's lead sponsor of video slots, Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Cincinnati, remains undaunted.

"It's one step at a time," said Blessing, who's working to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow casino-style gambling at horse tracks out of a Senate committee this Tuesday.

The proposal would split the state's $500 million-a-year cut of the gambling proceeds among three different programs meant to lower the price of prescription drugs, aid school construction and offer scholarships to the state's best and brightest college students.

Pharmaceutical companies refused to support the proposed discount drug plan, a problem that kept the bill from passing the committee last week.

Blessing said he's working on a compromise, but wasn't sure Friday if it would win over the drug companies.

An even bigger problem awaits in the House of Representatives. House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, says he doesn't support the Senate plan because it doesn't solve a fiscal problem.

The $48.8 billion budget that passed early Friday morning does not rely on or need slot machine revenues. State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, said it doesn't make sense now to push for slots.

"We never said we want to do gambling just for the sake of doing it or for funding new programs," Seitz said about prescription drugs and scholarships. "Both are wonderful programs, but so is a free Christmas turkey for everybody."

Seitz also credited Gov. Bob Taft for killing a proposal he sponsored that would have linked slot machines to a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax.

That proposal, which the House passed in April, would have given voters an option to swap the penny-on-the dollar increase with slot machines after one year. Taft threatened a veto if that proposal reached his desk, prompting senators to take it out of the budget bill.

Supporters of the Senate plan point out that the governor can't stop lawmakers from putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. And they believe that a majority of voters would approve slots if the money went to lower drugs costs, build schools and send more students to college.

"That would get a lot of support among voters," said Bob Doyle, a lobbyist who represents River Downs racetrack in Anderson Township.

Doyle said he and other supporters of the Senate plan will be talking to Householder to try to change his mind.

"He's supported us in the past," Doyle said. "I'm sure we'll know by Tuesday."

River Downs' general manager, Jack Hanessian, said he doesn't understand why lawmakers would ignore or oppose a gambling measure that would ultimately be decided by voters.

"I'd like the people to have a chance to vote on it," Hanessian said. "Why is it so difficult to let people decide?"

If lawmakers won't do it, Hanessian said track owners just might try to do it themselves. He said a track-backed petition drive to put the question before voters is another option.

He said Ohio's tracks are losing money and horses to other states' tracks that use riverboat or slot machine revenues to offer bigger purses.

"If a business doesn't grow and can't compete with its neighbors, it will wither away," Hanessian warned.


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