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No clear signals on state gambling laws

The state of gambling law in Ohio has become a complex clash of legislative action, executive order, court rulings, and constitutional amendments.

What is gambling law in Ohio? That’s a good question. What should gambling law in Ohio be? Good luck.

Putting it nicely, David Zanotti, president of the anti-gambling Ohio Roundtable, called the hodgepodge of gambling rulings — especially recent efforts by Attorney General Marc Dann — “awkward.”

The legal minds, the political minds, the gambling minds, and the gambling-is-bad-for-society minds all gathered in a room Thursday with one goal — coming up with a legislative solution to what everyone agrees has become a mess of competing authorities and interpretations.

There doesn’t appear to be a consensus on how to regulate gaming and gambling in a way that addresses the voters’ will, and stamps out the obviously illegal games of chance while keeping those fun, and legal, skill-based games. But a legislative proposal will be coming out soon, said House Speaker Jon Husted, a Republican from Kettering.

Lawmakers, who return this week from their summer recess, must first choose which of two paths they will take. Both are plagued with potential problems, both foreseen and unforeseen.

One path would be a strengthening of current law distinguishing between games of skill and games of chance — which Dann has said is a distinction that is impossible for the state to enforce. The other path, which Dann and Gov. Ted Strickland proposed, is to ban cash payouts of any significant magnitude — which essentially distinguishes between playing for amusement and playing to gamble. The two also tried by executive order to shut down 50,000 machines popping up in bars and storefronts they say sneaked in through a loophole in the skill-versus-chance law.

A third option — sending another gambling measure back to the voters for them to decide — is unlikely. In November, Ohioans voted down a ballot issue that would have legalized slot machines at racetracks and two proposed parlors in Cleveland. Voters also rejected proposals to legalize casino gambling in 1990 and 1996.

Husted faults Dann, a Democrat, for overstepping the boundaries of the attorney general’s office to formulate policy on the skill-versus-chance distinction when he worked with certain manufacturers to certify machines.

“The chaos that the attorney general created on this issue can’t stand,” Husted said. “The problems that existed (before) were manageable. He had an obligation to defend our law against these machines and instead he decided he was going to be in the business of determining the licensing of gambling.”

A recent poll showed that 49 percent of Ohio voters surveyed shared Strickland and Dann’s opinion that the 50,000 gaming machines that popped up around the state should be illegal. Forty-five percent said they should be legal.

With a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points, it was roughly a tie.

Even the public isn’t sending a clear signal.

Stephen Majors is a writer for the Associated Press.