Legislators gamble with state funding

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The race is on to legitimize and legalize “alternative gaming” in Ohio through video lottery terminals at Ohio’s racetracks.

The Buckeye State is the latest of the states off and running with an expanded gambling gambit. Nearby Maryland, Pennsylvania and Kentucky legislators are wrestling with the issue of racetrack gaming, and Ohio is surrounded by Michigan, West Virginia and Indiana, which permit expanded gambling in their states.

How can we continue to let people drop their dollars in adjacent states, proponents ask. Everybody else is doing it.

Strong lure. In a tax-weary state where the coffers are almost bare, the lure of easy money is strong. Proponents claim racetrack lottery terminals could produce $700 million every two years for the state budget (another source claims $1 billion).

To be sure, there is an economic impact to expanded gambling. Here in Columbiana County, nearby Mountaineer Racetrack and Gaming Resort in northern West Virginia is a growing employer, musical entertainment venue and tourist attraction.

But to infer that video lottery terminals will be the savior of Ohio’s budget crunch is like saying the state lottery is the savior of the state’s education funding woes.

Temptation. In testimony before the Ohio Senate last November, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell urged legislators not to support the measure.

“The dubious salvation of gambling is tempting. But like a moth is drawn to a flame, we will eventually get burned by this temptation,” Blackwell said. Blackwell is toeing the Taft administration line, as the governor is strongly against expanding gambling in Ohio.

Video gambling. The Ohio House of Representatives passed a budget proposal earlier this month that includes another penny increase to the sales tax. The one-cent hike could be dropped if Ohioans approve the video gambling, which the House would like to see on a ballot, possibly as early as November.

Video gambling terminals would only be legal at Ohio’s existing racetracks – three Thoroughbred tracks and four Standardbred tracks – where pari-mutuel wagering is already taking place.

Current plan. And, according to Gambling Magazine, the current plan calls for horsemen (or at least track operators) to get 10 percent of the gaming proceeds, through purses.

Will the movement gain enough speed to make it out of the backstretch and on to a ballot by referendum or by legislators?

Dennis Heebink, president of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners, is encouraging local racing supporters to get involved in their local Farm Bureaus – a crafty way to use the farm organization’s political clout to further the gambling issue.

Ag link. The link to agriculture is a natural for horse racing, Gambling Magazine quotes Heebink as saying last month.

That link is a natural, yes. The next link to an expanded gambling venue in Ohio is not. Farm Bureau members should be wary of such end-run tactics. Ohioans soundly defeated riverboat casino gambling measures on the ballot in 1990 and 1996. I’d say the people have spoken. Question is, are legislators listening?

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