Is Ohio Back In The Game?

by Ed Meyer

posted on January 29, 2009 in News | No Comments >>

The latest proposal to bring casino-style gambling to Ohio could put more than $1 billion into the state’s wallet in a matter of weeks.

Unlike previous proposals, it would not require a vote of the people. It wouldn’t even need the legislature’s blessing.

The River Downs horse-racing track near Cincinnati is trying to enlist mayors to lean on Gov. Ted Strickland to get the Ohio Lottery into the slot-machine business.

Strickland simply could direct the Ohio Lottery to manage slot machines at the seven Ohio racetracks and one location in each of the state’s seven largest cities, said Robert Doyle, the River Downs lobbyist. The sites would get only slot machines, not other casino-style games.

An order from the governor would bypass the lengthy and expensive process by which the previous four gambling measures have appeared on the ballot: through petition drives for which hundreds of thousands of signatures had to be collected. All four of those measures failed.

Strickland, who nudged the lottery to add the fast-playing Keno game last year, could do the same with slot machines, Doyle said. He said he pitched his idea to Strickland’s budget chief, J. Pari Sabety, although Strickland’s office would not confirm that.

Strickland doesn’t plan to take Doyle up on his suggestion anytime soon, spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said.

“It is not something that the governor is considering in his (2009-10) budget,” she said. “He has said he is willing to consider various proposals for the budget but does not think that gambling is a wise economic-development strategy.”

River Downs is one of three companies shopping gambling proposals around the Statehouse. It’s a matter of life or death for the Cincinnati racetrack, whose manager has suggested that it could shut down if it loses money again this year.

MyOhio Entertainment, which backed last year’s failed proposal for a single casino, near Wilmington, is back with plans for casinos in the state’s three largest cities and possibly others. Penn National Gaming Inc., which poured millions of dollars into defeating the MyOhio Entertainment ballot issue, is floating the idea of casino gambling at racetracks and four other sites.

Both of those proposals would need voter approval, although Penn National is hoping to skip the petition process by getting the legislature to sponsor its plan.

The River Downs proposal has the benefit of generating $1.4 billion right away through license fees of $100 million per location, Doyle said. After that, the state would capture about $112 million a year in slot revenue, while the cities and racetracks would divide an equal amount.

“I think the other two proposals don’t do what we’re trying to do, which is giving the state the revenue (quickly),” Doyle said yesterday. “Critical times make for critical decisions. It’s crisis time in Ohio.”

His idea is likely to meet stiff opposition. Voters would object to a major expansion of the state lottery, said Rob Walgate, vice president of the Ohio Roundtable, a conservative public-policy group that has opposed previous gambling measures. He said Ohioans would see a major difference between slot machines and the addition of Keno last year and the multistate MegaMillions game in 2002.

“Is this what voters envisioned in 1973 when they amended the (Ohio) Constitution to allow the lottery?” Walgate asked. “If this is what they envisioned, they would have voted for it one of the four times it’s been on the ballot since then.”

Ohio’s big-city mayors, who historically have been more receptive to gambling than Statehouse leadership, have nothing to say yet about the River Downs proposal.

Doyle suggested that the nearly vacant Columbus City Center would be a logical site in the city. The issue “is not on our radar right now,” said Dan Williamson, spokesman for Mayor Michael B. Coleman.

Nor is the River Downs proposal stirring the interest of Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson. “I don’t think it’s been discussed at all here,” spokeswoman Andrea Taylor said.

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory’s office did not return a call for comment yesterday.

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