By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - A last-minute push to put racetrack video slot machines on the November ballot fell apart in the Ohio Senate on Tuesday.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers began the day as they ended it - split over a proposal that would have tapped millions in slot machine revenues to bankroll a government-guaranteed prescription drug discount program for seniors and uninsured families.
Democrats praised the drug relief plan as a model for the country and said it would persuade voters to put thousands of video slots at Ohio's seven racetracks. GOP lawmakers said they feared they would create an out-of-control entitlement program that would gobble up tax dollars.
That basic dispute survived several attempts from pro-gambling lobbyists and lawmakers to reach a compromise that would pass this week - before the House and Senate adjourn for the summer.
"We just couldn't come to terms on how this money would be broken out," said Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, chairman of the State and Local Government Committee. "So we're pulling the plug."
Barring any surprises today, Coughlin said he does not expect to pick up the issue until lawmakers return to work this fall. That would mean a gambling proposal couldn't go before voters until the March primary at the earliest.
That continues a years-long trend in which lawmakers try, fail, and try again to put video slot machines at racetracks.
Track owners say they need the profits slots can produce to stay in business. They and supportive lawmakers point to the millions that Ohioans spend every year gambling on slots on Indiana riverboats and in West Virginia racetrack casinos. Kentucky lawmakers are also upping the ante, with proposals that would put slot machines at their racetracks.
Slots were proposed in Ohio in 2001 by House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, as a solution to Ohio's school funding woes. Though a coalition of schools suing the state agreed to Householder's plan, Gov. Bob Taft vowed to veto slots without a vote of the people.
Slots popped up again this year as a way to help erase a $4 billion deficit in the two-year budget. The House GOP-backed plan would have let voters eliminate a temporary 1-cent increase in the state sales tax after a year - replacing it with slots at the tracks.
But that plan was rejected by the Senate. Ohio's newly passed $48.8 billion budget is balanced with a two-year 1-cent increase in the sales tax that takes effect July 1.
With no link to the budget crisis, slots supporters tried to connect gambling revenues to new programs. One proposal would have spent the $500 million in annual revenues on prescription drug relief, school construction and on scholarships for the state's best college students.
This proposal faced trouble when Householder said he wouldn't support it. He hadn't changed his mind Tuesday.
"We've always been willing to take a look at allowing slot machines, (provided the revenue they generate) would go toward solving problems in the state," Householder said.
Senate Republicans also needed Democratic support to put the question, a constitutional amendment, on the November ballot. Coughlin said Senate leaders wanted to know if some Democratic senators would still vote for the bill if it didn't include prescription drug discounts.
"We could not get a guarantee that we would have those votes on the floor with a scholarship-only program," he said.
Democrats, including Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, disagreed.
"I was willing to support the plan with the scholarship program in it," said Mallory, the No. 2 ranking Democrat. "We approached them about that. They said no thanks."
Other Democrats blasted Republicans for refusing to consider the prescription drug relief idea.
"This could have changed the lives of millions of Ohioans," said Sen. Marc Dann, D-Liberty Township. "They don't even want to hear about it."
Jordan Gentile contributed to this story. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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