COLUMBUS — The only thing Ohio’s three highest government leaders can agree on is that slot machines are necessary to balance the state’s budget. Who makes that decision and where the money-making machines would go is still up in the air.
After months of denouncing expanded gambling as an avenue for economic development in Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland made a huge leap and introduced a proposal that would bring up to 12,000 video lottery terminals — VLTs — to Ohio’s seven race tracks. He estimates $455 million would be generated through $65 million licensing fees. In addition, he says, $933 million in revenue will stream into the state’s education funds. His plan would be passed through legislation, not as an amendment to the Ohio Constitution.
Democratic Speaker of the House Armond Budish backs Strickland’s proposal, believing that of the options available to fill the budget gap — raising taxes, cutting more services and finding alternative revenue sources — adding slot machines is the smartest, most taxpayer-friendly option.
“The speaker supports VLTs at Ohio’s seven racetracks as a way to add to the significant budget shortfall by utilizing revenue from VLTs. With this, we would be able to offset cuts and raises in taxes in this difficult economy,” said Keary McCarthy, spokesman for Budish and the Ohio House Democratic Caucuses.
Representing the 19th District, which includes Knox County, Republican Sen. Bill Harris agrees in the theory of slot machines assisting the state’s budget, but that’s where his favor stops. After convening a bipartisan committee to explore the pros and cons of passing legislation for expanded gambling in Ohio, Harris feels strongly the decision should rest with Ohio voters.
“Voters have four times since 1970 said no to gambling,” Harris said. “To not pay attention to that is questionable governing.”
Harris said a constitutional attorney testified before the committee and said passage through legislation could result in lawsuits being filed, which could tie the issue up in court for years.
McCarthy disagreed, stating strong legislative language can close any options for litigation.
In a letter to Strickland sent Tuesday, Harris contends the governor’s “framework” is a good starting point, but thinks the legislative bodies should “abide by the collective wisdom of those who elected us and to place a ballot issue before the voters this November.”
That measure would stray from Strickland’s proposal in a couple of ways. First, if passed, slot machines would be permitted through a constitutional amendment. Second, not more than seven locations would be selected to house slot machines. The sites would be dictated by the results of a public auction, giving those with the highest bids the gaming license.
“These licenses would be open to competitive bid,” Harris said. “This allows us the opportunity to open the bidding process up to anyone that had the resources.”
This step, according to McCarthy, could be a dangerous move for supporters. By auctioning licenses, opponents fear gambling could be installed in places most voters would be uncomfortable with.
“We are very concerned about the proposal to open the bidding. We don’t want gambling at family-oriented venues like malls and amusement parks,” McCarthy said. “Our proposal would contain the operation to locations where gambling already occurs — the racetracks.”
Although he is hoping to wait and send the measure to the voters this fall, Harris intends on including the projected $933 million in the state’s budget; he said they can worry later about filling the deficit if the voters object.
Ohio Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl, R, said her initial reaction was to support legislation that would bring slot machines to Ohio’s race tracks to aid the horse industry in the state and save jobs.
Now, she just wants to see a plan that is implemented correctly, not haphazardly.
“Pennsylvania has a good setup where the horse community and the government are satisfied,” Ruhl said. “To save the horse industry, this has to be done the right way.”
Ruhl said she would back a plan that put slots at the racetracks, but would not approve any measures for casinos.
“People are already gambling at the racetracks. I’d have a problem if [slot machines] go someplace else,” she said. “Voters have overwhelmingly said no to casinos.”
Although nothing concrete has come through the House or the Senate detailing passage of slot machines, it has been speculated the horse industry would see anywhere between 2 percent and 4 percent of the governor’s projections.
“We had horse people tell us in committee that was not enough. The average in other states is 12 percent,” Harris said.
“The horse racing industry is supportive of expanding gambling and this could offer a significant bolster to an industry with a rich history in Ohio,” McCarthy said.
The governor does have the authority to make an executive order that would require the legislature to make slot machines at racetracks a reality.
“We would have to work within the Ohio Revised Code and the constitution to facilitate appropriating the funds to make it work,” Harris said.
A balanced budget needs to be passed by July 14 or another interim budget will be required.