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Slots bill waits for Kasich expert’s review

By David Skolnick

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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Ohio House Speaker Pro Tempore Louis Blessing Jr. of Cincinnati

By David Skolnick


Legislation to legalize video slot machines at Ohio’s horse racetracks could be introduced in the General Assembly in about a month, the No. 2 ranking member of the House said.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Louis Blessing Jr. of Cincinnati, R-29th, told The Vindicator on Monday: “We won’t have a problem getting a majority” of legislators to approve the proposal.

Penn National Gaming Inc. wants to relocate its harness track in Toledo to a $200 million facility it would build in Austintown. Company officials say they’ll move ahead with those plans only if the state legalizes slot machines at racetracks.

The “delay” in introducing legislation to legalize slots is Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, giving his OK to move ahead with the plan, Blessing said.

Kasich told The Vindicator on Feb. 24 that he wanted to hire a “gambling expert” to review gaming in Ohio and the impact of slot machines at the state’s seven racetracks.

Rob Nichols, his spokesman, told the newspaper Monday the governor will “be announcing his decision very soon on VLTs,” video lottery terminals, another term for slot machines. But he first wants to talk to the expert, Nichols said.

With voters approving Las Vegas-style gambling casino in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo on the November 2009 ballot, Blessing said it’s clear that Ohioans support gambling.

Two state legislators from the Mahoning Valley — state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Canfield, D-33rd, and state Rep. Ronald V. Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th — have been working with state Sen. Bill Seitz of Green Township in Hamilton County, R-8th, chairman of the Senate’s Government Oversight and Reform Committee, and Blessing on legislation to legalize slot machines at the racetracks.

Schiavoni was to meet today with Seitz to work on the legislation.

“If we have bipartisan support, passage of the legislation will be easier,” Schiavoni said.

The plan would be to introduce identical legislation to legalize slots in both chambers, he and Gerberry said.

Then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, legalized slots at racetracks in the summer of 2009 through an executive order. But a lawsuit challenging Strickland’s power to do so was filed, and the plan never proceeded.

That proposal called for 50 percent of profits from slots to go to the state, estimated at the time to be $933 million annually.

The new proposal would be for 33 percent of profits to go to the state — the same percentage as the gambling casinos — and would probably generate about $500 million a year, Schiavoni said.

The slot machines would be under the authority of the Ohio Lottery Commission, Gerberry and Schiavoni said.

Penn National’s getting the racetrack to Austintown as well as relocating its thoroughbred Beulah Park near Columbus to the Dayton area are far from done deals.

Owners of other racetracks in the state oppose the plan, and there is another organization interested in building a racetrack as part of an entertainment complex in Vienna.

The Ohio State Racing Commission has the final say on whether Penn National can relocate the tracks.