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It's time for Ohio to roll the dice



Published: Sun, February 16, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)




The state of Ohio's position on gambling can best be described as schizophrenic. On the one hand, Ohioans insist they don't want an expansion of games of chance, but on the other hand, the Ohio Lottery is a $2 billion a year business. Of that amount in the year 2000, $1.275 billion went to prize payouts, $686 million was funneled to education, $135 million was paid to lottery agents in bonuses and commissions and $104 went for operating expenses.

But it doesn't end there. In one recent year, Ohioans wagered about $600 million at the seven horse racing tracks and spent $260 million gambling outside the Buckeye State.

Yet, in 1990 and 1996, voters said no to casino gambling. The opposition was led by the Ohio Roundtable and the Ohio Council of Churches.

The schizophreni is clearly illustrated by the Catholic Church's position on gambling. While the church is opposed to all forms of gaming, bingo remains an important source of revenue for many, if not most, of the parishes in Ohio. Indeed, bingo night isn't confined to individuals daubing their cards as letters and numbers are being called out. Significant income is derived from the sale of poppers (pull tabs.)

This schizophrenic attitude was even evident during last year's race for governor.

Big Game

Republican Bob Taft, who was seeking a second four-year term, was unwavering in his opposition to a proposal to place electronic gambling devices in Ohio's seven racetracks. Yet, Taft led the charge for Ohio to join a multistate lottery called the Big Game. Taft went so far as to boast that the Big Game would ultimately generate $40 million a year for the general fund.

Today, Ohioans can spend their money on an array of lottery games. But that isn't all: The state has been aggressive in pushing instant lottery tickets, which cost from $1 to $10. During the Christmas season, the Ohio Lottery even came out with a $20 instant ticket.

It takes a lot less time to scratch off an instant ticket than it does to feed quarters into a slot machine and pull the arm -- as in one-arm bandit -- or hit the "play" button.

While opponents of casino gambling or electronic gambling devices continue to do their "Big Brother" thing, Ohio is becoming isolated in its opposition.

West Virginia, which has slot machines in racetracks, is moving toward approving full-service casino gambling at the tracks. Indiana has riverboat gambling, Kentucky has casinos at racetracks and Detroit has three new casinos.

During his campaign for governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, former mayor of Philadelphia, was unequivocal in his support of the initiative to permit slot machines in the state's horse racing tracks; it's only a matter of time before the bill pending in the Legislature becomes law. In anticipation of this, developers have talked about building a new racetrack near Erie, Pa.

Once the slots are in place, casino gambling won't be far away.

Thus, the electronic gambling devices being proposed for Ohio will not be enough to stop Ohioans from traveling relatively short distances to experience the real thing.

The ongoing debate in Columbus over the state's operating budget and the refusal by Republican legislators to embrace any kind of a tax increase make it clear that other sources of revenue will have to be found. Taft has said that the budget has been cut to the bone and further reductions in spending will undermine the state's efforts to improve the quality of primary, secondary and higher education and make Ohio competitive with other states for high technology jobs.

No sources of revenue

And so the question: Are there any other sources of revenue the state could tap to close a $4 billion hole in the next biennium budget? The answer is no. Republican legislators insist that the size of state government can be reduced further and that the General Assembly must reassess state financial support for all non-mandated programs. There are some lawmakers who are even challenging criteria used to qualify Ohioans for programs for the poor and the elderly.

The Buckeye State is celebrating its 200th birthday this year, and it's time it acted its age.

Nationwide, casinos are legal in 30 states, there are 100 riverboat and dockside casinos in six states and almost 300 casinos on Indian reservations.

Like it or not, gambling is as American as apple pie.




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