Same issue, but new spin on casino gambling

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Casino gambling has failed twice at the polls in Ohio since 1990, but at least two big-city mayors are betting that the next time will be different.

If a recent vote on slots in Florida is any indication, they could be right.

Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell and Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken want voters to amend the Ohio Constitution to allow the residents of each city - instead of all Ohioans - to decide whether to have casinos.

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Luken acknowledges there's some long odds involved in getting ''home rule'' on gambling.

''I just want the opportunity to allow people in southwestern Ohio to be able to decide for themselves if they want to do this,'' he said.

It's a new spin on the casino issue in Ohio. Proponents say they don't know of anything like it in the country. But it resembles an issue that Florida voters passed in November.

They narrowly approved a change to the state constitution that allows voters in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to decide if they want slots at five racetracks and two jai-alai arenas.

Like Ohio, Florida has a history of opposing gambling measures, rejecting them three times since 1978.

But last year's slots initiative pledged tax revenues to schools statewide, and the sponsors gathered support from the education community, including the state teacher's union.

''It was a good strategy. The proponents talked about education. They talked about, 'Let these counties have their fair say,''' said Daniel Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.

Limiting the potential for slots to just two counties was a key to the Florida measure passing, he said. A widespread approach would raise more opposition from those who don't want casinos nearby.

Atlantic City wouldn't be Atlantic City if gambling proponents in New Jersey hadn't figured that out. A measure to allow local referendums on casinos failed there in 1974.

''People in New Jersey didn't like the idea that casinos may show up in their back yard,'' said Daniel Heneghan, spokesman for the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

Then in 1976, voters amended the state constitution to allow casinos only in Atlantic City.

Campbell and other proponents haven't written Ohio's proposal yet, but the plan is to allow cities to vote on casinos if it passes. The option could be limited to big cities.

''I think it makes the situation only messier,'' said David Zanotti, president of the Ohio Roundtable, a conservative group that campaigned heavily against the 1990 and 1996 ballot questions. Zanotti doesn't think the new approach will fool anyone.

''They're assuming that people are too stupid to figure it out,'' he said. ''The Ohio electorate is very smart.''

Jerry Austin, a political consultant to Campbell, said times have changed, and voters won't react the same way to casino gambling this time.

''The difference is in 1990 and 1996 we were not surrounded by other states that have some form of gambling, therefore drawing revenue from the state,'' he said.

Cleveland also wasn't the nation's poorest big city, and the state's educational system hadn't yet been declared unconstitutional for creating disparities between rich and poor districts.

Campbell said there's already been a strong response in Cleveland to the ''home rule'' initiative. She said it's a simple issue.

''Cleveland people should decide what goes on in Cleveland,'' she said.

Joe Milicia is a correspondent for The Ohio Associated Press.