Casino bill should not try to overreach

Published 12:06 pm Tuesday, June 1, 2010

With voter approval of State Issue 3 last November, which authorized the construction of four casinos in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo, the General Assembly is now tasked with passing legislation by June 3 to regulate these facilities.

In the effort to meet this deadline, however, the legislature must be careful to craft a bill that meets our constitutional obligation, but does not overreach.

The House and Senate each approved casino implementing language on May 26. The House version and the Senate version are very similar, but like other big bills, there are some major differences that must be worked out by the two chambers over the next few days.

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The Senate proposal —Senate Bill 263 — which received several hearings in the Senate Government Oversight Committee, establishes a seven-member Ohio Casino Control Commission responsible for the licensure, regulation and oversight of casino gaming in the state. Members would be appointed by the governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and could serve up to three, four-year terms.

Once open for business, the four casinos could not admit patrons younger than 21 years of age, and must adhere to Ohio’s indoor smoking ban, may not offer complimentary drinks and may only serve alcohol between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., as allowed under current law. In addition, these facilities must use a cashless wagering system with minimum and maximum wagers determined by the casino operators and approved by the Casino Control Commission.

SB 263 would also establish a six-member, joint legislative panel, consisting of three appointments each from the president of the senate and the speaker of the house, for the purpose of considering future laws, rules and/or constitutional amendments governing casino gaming.

Further, as outlined in the Issue 3 constitutional amendment, each casino would be required to pay a $50 million license fee to operate in Ohio, which the state must spend on workforce development.

SB 263 also sets a $1 million application fee per facility, with licenses subject to renewal every three years at the discretion of the Casino Control Commission. And, as part of the application process, licensees would be subject to background checks.

The major disagreement between the House and Senate casino bills concerns whether the legislature should allocate the possible $200 million in license fees now or wait until the state actually receives the money. It could be years before some of the casinos are complete, and nothing in the constitutional amendment requires that these facilities be built at all.

The House legislation specifically earmarks license funds for various development programs.

While this is a worthy effort, it is my belief and that of most of my Senate colleagues that the General Assembly should focus only on passing implementation language and wait to appropriate the $200 million if and when it is received.

This would ensure that we meet the constitutionally-imposed deadline of June 3, while promoting competition for these dollars and giving the state the flexibility to use them in the most effective manner to meet Ohio’s future economic needs.

Many of my fellow legislators and I have expressed serious concerns about expanded gambling, but we have a constitutional duty to honor the wishes of Ohio voters and pass legislation to ensure the appropriate oversight and regulation of these casinos.

But this effort must not go too far.

It is in the best interest of voters and the future of our economy that the legislature waits to appropriate the license fees until they are paid to the state.

I am confident that the House and Senate can resolve this important issue and come to an agreement on a bill in time to meet our deadline.

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.