Another Legislative session, another gambling debate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The new legislative session has taken its first tiptoe into the issue of casino gambling. This time, the point man for gambling expansion for majority Republicans in the House is telling the disparate parties promoting the idea to get on the same page.

Expansion of gambling beyond the lottery, charitable bingo and other games has long been sought by racetrack owners, horsemen's groups, developers, American Indian tribes and some lawmakers. Last year, mayors Jane Campbell of Cleveland and Charlie Luken of Cincinnati, both Democrats, became interested in casinos for their cities.

Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican and proponent of past gambling proposals, wants the approach to be different in the session that began in January.

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It will be difficult, he acknowledged, for consensus to be found among groups that historically have put their own interests first. Racetracks have promoted putting video slot machines at their tracks; developers and casino operators have pushed for traditional casinos in Ohio's big cities or on riverboats, and some Indian tribes want to open casinos on their ancestral land.

''We're going to try to convene a meeting among the principal players we know about to see if they could ever find a common ground,'' Seitz said. ''There would be long odds that they could come up with a plan themselves.''

House Minority Leader Chris Redfern, a Port Clinton Democrat, last week said he plans to put a constitutional amendment before lawmakers that would allow seven to 12 stand-alone casinos in Ohio, pending a statewide vote. Seitz said he has not studied the plan.

Licenses for the casinos would be auctioned under the oversight of the Ohio Lottery Commission and the license-holders could put the casinos in communities that want them, Redfern said. Racetracks would get a portion of the proceeds to sweeten the purses for their races, he said.

At least once in each two-year session since 2000, the Legislature has considered, but failed to pass, resolutions that would have put a constitutional amendment before voters allowing the slots at racetracks. Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, staunchly opposes bringing casino-style gambling into the state. However, legislative resolutions do not require the governor's approval. Churches and other anti-gambling groups also lobbied against passage.

Although Republicans control the House and the Senate, many members of both GOP caucuses oppose a gambling expansion, so last year backers turned to Democrats for help, promising some of the profits would go toward college scholarships.

A video-slots plan backed by the racetracks passed the Senate in October, but it died in the House because then-Speaker Larry Householder opposed how the money would be spent. Voters soundly rejected developer-driven casino ballot issues in 1990 and 1996.

Seitz wants to make sure that any plan the Legislature votes to put before voters would have a reasonable chance of ballot success.

The video-slots proposal would have had a good chance of passage because the backers did a good job of explaining it to the public, said Paul Tipps, a lobbyist who represents Beulah Park, a suburban Columbus racetrack. Finding the money needed to promote the plan - about $10 million - is key, he said.

''When we were talking about VLTs (video lottery terminals), it was the racetracks. They were willing to underwrite that effort,'' Tipps said. ''They even defined how the money would be spent.''

The interest is still there to bring casino gambling to Ohio, but it won't last forever, Tipps said. Backers eventually will target cities like Pittsburgh and states like West Virginia if Ohio lawmakers don't act within a few years, he said.

''At some point, one of two things is going to happen. They're either going to get it done or the market is going to disappear,'' Tipps said.

John McCarthy is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press' Columbus bureau.