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Governor eyes gambling for budget fix

Gov. Ted Strickland stared down the barrel of even more painful cuts to state programs, and he decided that reversing himself on gambling would be the least painful option at his disposal.

The devastated economy that left the state starved for revenue made it implausible for Strickland to simultaneously maintain three of his governing principles: not raising taxes, not expanding gambling, and overhauling the school funding system with an increase in state funds.

Strickland’s decision to renege on gambling has given his GOP opponents low-hanging fruit to pursue one of the most common political attacks: that a politician switched positions on an important policy stance for political expediency.

Whether or not the Legislature accepted his proposal to put lottery-run slot machines at Ohio’s seven horse racing tracks to help plug a $3.2 billion budget deficit, Strickland had put himself out there.

The GOP-controlled Senate has insisted on a hands-off approach, apparently viewing gambling as politically damaging. With just a couple exceptions, Senate Republicans are encouraging Strickland to use his executive power to enact the slots plan — which would keep the issue tied to the governor and not them.

‘‘This is another pathetic display of weak leadership by Gov. Strickland,’’ said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine in a statement after Strickland’s announcement. ‘‘The governor has already said gambling isn’t the solution to Ohio’s economic problems.’’

Republicans are not alone in their opposition.

Gambling opponents, including churches, have announced their opposition to the slots idea, too — a particularly tender blow to a governor who is an ordained Methodist minister. The Ohio Roundtable, a conservative-leaning public policy group, has called for Strickland’s resignation over the reversal.

Strickland’s political risk gives opponents an opportunity to attack him as he runs for likely re-election in 2010. They hope the charge will resonate with voters instead of Strickland’s down-to-earth explanation that, ‘‘This has been a difficult choice for me but I believe a necessary one.’’

Strickland is also wagering that Ohioans who have repeatedly opposed gambling expansion at the polls will be open to the tough choice he said he had to make.

While voters have turned down gambling initiatives — including one with the exact blueprint for putting slot machines at Ohio’s race tracks — four times in the past 20 years, recent polls suggest they aren’t opposed to casinos entirely.

An Ohio Poll released by the University of Cincinnati in early May found that 60 percent of Ohioans favored making casino-style gambling legal in Ohio, while 38 percent were opposed.

A whopping 69 percent of Strickland’s fellow Democrats somewhat or strongly favored it, compared to only 31 percent somewhat or strongly opposed to the idea. Republicans were split 49 percent to 49 percent.

That strong support came just six months after voters rejected a statewide ballot issue that would have allowed a single casino in Clinton County. So it’s unclear from the questions asked exactly why voters have rejected any specific gambling proposal.

‘‘When you attach it (gambling) to educational revenues then it usually overcomes any kind of moral objective that people have had to it,’’ said Grant Neeley, a political science professor at the University of Dayton.

Strickland didn’t do exactly that.

He did defend introducing slots in a few limited locations as a way to prevent more program cuts. He also said the action would help maintain his investments in primary and secondary education, as well as protect a tuition freeze at Ohio’s four-year public colleges and universities for an additional year.

Stephen Majors is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.