Thursday, June 26, 2003

Gambling? Don't bet on it

VLTs are DOA

Ohio legislators' latest dice-roll to legalize video slot machines at the state's racetracks has come up snakeyes. Senate Republicans gave up Tuesday on crafting an authorizing amendment and a bill to allocate the estimated $500 million annual revenue the state could receive from video lottery terminals (VLTs). The issue appears dead this year in the General Assembly, although groups still could circulate petitions to put an amendment on the November ballot.

It would be nice to characterize this as a triumph of good sense, but it's more a case of competing factions that squabble over the spoils so much they end up with nothing. These lawmakers may not be familiar with the cooperative game theories of mathematician John Nash (A Beautiful Mind).

The original House plan, which tied VLTs to the budget, banked on bribing voters to approve VLTs in lieu of a second year's "temporary" one-cent sales tax hike. An alternative advocated by Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, would separate it from the budget and use VLT revenues for college scholarships to help keep Ohio students from leaving the state.

But the too-good-to-be-true lure of this new pot of "free" money proved too strong for other lawmakers eager to spend it. Public school building construction was added, even though Ohio already is funding and building schools at a rate of $2 million a day. Democrats proposed a new prescription drug benefit plan for seniors and uninsured families with it. The Senate committee ended up with several conflicting plans to divvy up the loot. After a week of backroom negotiations, they couldn't agree on one.

It's just as well. As Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and others testified, gambling is an unreliable source of revenue, a point being demonstrated by declining state lottery sales. Certainly it shouldn't be tied to the budget. And any program, especially a major new government entitlement, that depends on it could end up draining the general fund.

As written, this VLT authorization was a slippery instrument that could allow gambling beyond the state's seven racetracks and could also open the door to Indian casinos.

It was a bad bet all around. Next time, lawmakers should heed the preference Ohio voters consistently have expressed on such gambling schemes: No dice.

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