By David Skolnick
and Marc Kovac
A bill making it easier for horse racetracks with video slot machines to relocate within Ohio moves to the state Senate for a vote next week.
The bill is designed to help Penn National Gaming Inc., which is building casinos in Columbus and Toledo, transfer its gaming licenses and relocate two horse- racing tracks, including Raceway Park in Toledo to a $200 million facility to be built in Austintown at the vacant 186-acre Centerpointe business park. The other track is Beulah Park in Grove City, near Columbus, which could move to Dayton.
The Ohio House approved the bill 76-16 Thursday.
It now heads to the Senate Rules and Reference Committee.
That committee will decide as early as Tuesday to either assign it to a committee or bypass that process and put it on the Senate floor for a vote, said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Canfield, D-33rd, a supporter of the bill.
The Senate is expected to approve the bill next week, Schiavoni said.
Schiavoni and State Rep. Ronald V. Gerberry, D-59th, said the bill’s language is designed specifically for the relocation to Austintown even though it doesn’t name any racetracks or new locations.
“It doesn’t take a genius to realize it’s tailored for our purposes to move the [harness] track from Toledo to the Mahoning Valley,” Schiavoni said. “It’s about doing it in a complete and quick manner.”
Gov. John Kasich supports the bill, said Rob Nichols, his spokesman.
Penn National is building casinos in Toledo and Columbus, and wants to move its nearby horse racetracks so as not to compete with itself for gambling dollars in those two cities.
Penn National will relocate the tracks only if the state legalizes video lottery terminals [VLTs] at Ohio’s seven horse racetracks. Kasich and the state Legislature are taking the steps to do that.
Bob Tenenbaum, a Penn National spokesman, said Thursday’s House vote “is another step forward” toward moving the two racetracks.
“We’re waiting for the entire process to be finished,” he said.
The bill leaves the Ohio State Racing Commission in charge of any track relocation.
Under current law, a track owner wanting to relocate needs the signatures of at least 51 percent of the total number of voters in the last general election from the township in which the racetrack would be located.
The bill in the Ohio House — co-sponsored by Gerberry and Speaker Pro Tempore Louis Blessing Jr. of Cincinnati, R-29th — removes the signature provision for two years.
This helps speed up the process of relocating racetracks, Gerberry said.
“We haven’t scored a touchdown yet, but we’re moving the ball down the field,” he said.
The bill requires the commission to “give preference to transfer proposals involving moves to locations in which neither horse racing nor casino gaming have been authorized before July 1.”
Added Blessing: “It’s something we need to do really to save horse racing in this state. It does generate money for the state of Ohio. We need to do it.”
The bill does not give final approval for Penn to move the tracks.
But it does establish the process for Penn and other owners to approach the Ohio State Racing Commission to request racetrack relocations and the Ohio Lottery Commission to consider applications for affected tracks to operate VLTs.
Under the legislation, the racing commission would give preferential treatment to applications from tracks wanting to move to areas without existing racetracks or casinos.
Additionally, companies would be allowed to operate lottery commission-controlled slots in temporary facilities at locations while the new tracks are being constructed.
“It tells the racing commission that in the next two years we have the authority to consider moving permits,” said Robert Schmitz, its chairman. “I’m not a policy maker. Our commission follows the law. I will do what the General Assembly gives us the authority to do.”
House Speaker Bill Batchelder of Medina, R-69th, said after Thursday’s vote that he did not expect lawmakers to take up any other VLT-related legislation before their summer recess, which starts June 30.