Early in his administration, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland was lumped in with other prominent Ohio politicians for criticism by this writer because of their hypocritical stance on gambling: Opposition to casino-style gaming, but acceptance of horse racing, the state-run and ever-expanding lottery and other games of chance, including bingo. In response, a spokesman for the governor offered this insight: Strickland (an ordained Methodist minister, a former member of Congress and a psychologist by profession) isn’t really opposed to gambling; he just doesn’t think it’s right for a few private investors to make out like bandits if casinos become a reality in Ohio.
Thus, when the governor announced June 19 that he supports legalizing slot machines in Ohio and placing them in the state’s seven horse-racing tracks, there wasn’t the same “Say, what?” reaction from this corner that accompanied much of the news coverage.
It certainly would have been a shocker had the governor announced his support for a proposed constitutional amendment to permit the construction of a full-service casino in each of these four cities: Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. The proposal is being pushed by a group of investors led by Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and founder of Quicken Loans. Petitions to place the constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot have been submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Strickland has come out against this proposal, as have other statewide politicians. He also opposed an initiative last year to amend the constitution to allow a casino/resort to be built in Clinton County, not far from Columbus.
In all, there have been four attempts to amend the constitution to expand gambling in Ohio, and each time the voters have responded with a resounding no.
In 2006, the amendment was designed to place video display terminals in the state’s horse-racing tracks and to permit the construction of two stand-alone casinos in downtown Cleveland.
So, how does the governor now justify his support of placing these VLTs in the race tracks? By contending that what he is proposing does not require the constitution to be amended, which can only be done by a vote of the people.
Strickland is merely seeking an expansion of the Ohio Lottery Commission’s authority through action by the General Assembly. The commission would oversee the slot machines through licensing agreements with the racetrack owners. The state would receive a licensing fee from the owners, and would also get a percentage of the revenue generated by the devices.
Strickland has said the expansion would net $933 million over the next two years for the state’s coffers. Ohio’s operating budget appears to be in free fall, and the governor, along with Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, is trying to fill a $3.2 billion hole in the biennium spending blueprint for the two fiscal years beginning July 1.
Deep spending cuts have already been made and more are in the offing, However, the governor, who is seeking re-election next year, insists that it is unrealistic to claim that the red ink can be erased with cuts alone. Indeed, just about every special interest group, from higher education, to social service agencies to public libraries, have been flooding state government with warnings of disaster if they have to sustain deeper funding cuts.
That’s why Strickland has been exploring ways to increase revenue. With the national economy in a tailspin and job losses hitting all time highs, states like Ohio cannot depend on tax revenues.
Not a big step
The expansion of gambling with the introduction of slot machines, as Ohio’s neighbors have done, is not that big of a step. Even so, Strickland isn’t approaching it with a lot of enthusiasm.
“I think it’s the best choice among several different options that were available to me,” he said in announcing the proposal. “If the economy was robust, I probably wouldn’t have made it.”
Had Strickland pushed this idea when he took office in January 2007 — rather than being cowed by the right-wingers and Bible thumpers — Ohio would not be in as deep an economic hole as it is today.