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Gambling still key battle in budget work

During a January interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Governor Strickland said he believed that “gambling as an economic development strategy for Ohio is not something that…is a desirable thing for us to pursue.”

Months later, he reiterated his opposition to expanded gambling.

After horse racing enthusiasts rallied at the Statehouse on May 19 urging support for video slot machines at Ohio’s seven horse race tracks, the Governor responded:

“I would tell (supporters) what I have told them several times in the past, that my position remains unchanged, and that I do not believe that this is the right way for Ohio to deal with our budget or to try to fund education. I think the people of our state have spoken on this issue clearly, multiple times, and until the people change their mind about the issue, then I am supporting what I believe to be the will of the people of Ohio.”

While Ohio voters have yet to change their minds about gambling in this state, Governor Strickland recently had a change of heart. On June 19, the Governor unveiled his “balanced budget framework” for fixing a $3.2 billion shortfall in the next two-year, state operating budget. The proposal calls for $2.4 billion in cuts to state programs and services and an expansion of the Ohio Lottery to include thousands of video lottery terminals (VLTs)—which are similar to slot machines — at the state’s horse tracks to generate $933 million.

While budget conference committee negotiations on education, Medicaid and other important issues are nearly complete, key differences between the Strickland Administration and House Democrats and Senate Republicans about how VLTs should be implemented have prolonged the budget debate.

The Governor says that he needs legislative approval to implement his slots plan.

However, just last year, he authorized — through executive order — a major expansion of the Ohio Lottery to allow Keno at bars and restaurants.

My colleagues and I in the Senate believe, first and foremost, that any decision to expand gambling in the state should be made by Ohio voters, who rejected gambling initiatives in 1990, 1996, 2006, and most recently, a constitutional amendment on the ballot last November to build a casino in Clinton County.

However, if the Governor wants to move forward with VLTs without a vote of the people, he has the power to do it through executive order like he did with Keno.

Senate President Bill Harris told the Governor that he would work to put his slots proposal on the ballot in November, but the Governor declined.

Instead, he expects the Senate to blindly agree to his agenda with no public debate and serious questions and concerns lingering about the consequences of his VLT plan.

The Senate rightly balked at the Governor’s request, and we have elected to take a more responsible approach.

This past week, the Senate began public hearings to help better understand the Governor’s VLT proposal and get answers to several important questions about the impact it could have on our schools, the Lottery and the future of the state’s budget.

For instance, how did the administration arrive at their $933 million estimate and what would happen to school funding if those revenues were not realized?

The Ohio Constitution requires that profits from the Ohio Lottery go to fund education, so if VLTs fail to bring in the $933 million in revenue the administration anticipates they will, would Ohio schools get short-changed.

When the Governor expanded Keno last year, he said at the time that it would bring in $75 million in fiscal year 2009. To date, it has brought in about $20 million.

In addition, is the Lottery Commission adequately prepared to take on these new responsibilities, especially if they are to begin immediately?

While Ohio Lottery Commission Director, Mike Dolan, testified on July 2 during the Senate’s first VLT hearing that his agency is prepared, he was unable to answer some very important questions about the proposal.

In fact, he said that he didn’t learn about the Governor’s slots plan until a member of the Lottery Commission sent him a story about it in the newspaper.

Despite objections from the Governor and House Democrats, I believe it is possible to put a well-reasoned and publicly-debated VLT issue on the November ballot without impacting the overall state budget.

A March memo from the Ohio Department of Taxation estimates that there would be $0 in total state revenue from VLTs in fiscal year 2010. Therefore, the House and Senate could pass the budget as negotiated in conference committee, and then work with the Governor in the coming months to craft a VLT proposal to put before Ohio voters.

Ohioans have sent a clear message in recent years that they do not think gambling is right for our state. Until they indicate otherwise, I believe it is my duty as an elected official to respect the will of the voters.

John A. Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District. He can be reached at Ohio Senate, Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio 43215 or by phone at (614) 466-8156.