Gambling overhaul: Deal or no deal?

By Marc Kovac


Lawmakers remain at odds over legislation to change state law for casinos, horse racetracks and sweepstakes parlors.

Members of an Ohio Senate and House conference committee continued to haggle Wednesday on issues related to local government funding and charity card rooms, with no resolution in sight.

“People, they just don’t want to budge from their positions,” said Rep. Lou Blessing, a Republican from Cincinnati and primary sponsor of the bill. “It takes some real creative, out-of-the-box thinking to deal with these issues, and that’s what we’re working on now.”

He added, “We’re dealing with minuscule issues here. ... I’d like to have every legislator just say when they walk in the Statehouse, ‘I’m checking my ego in at the door.’”

The committee canceled a hearing Tuesday and adjourned Wednesday without a deal. Blessing said there was a “zero’’ percent chance of reaching an agreement Wednesday.

House Bill 386 proposes numerous changes to state law tied to Ohio’s four new casinos, horse tracks, video lottery terminals and sweepstakes parlors. Among other provisions, the bill includes rules to accommodate the relocation of racetracks in Columbus and Toledo to Austintown and Dayton, respectively.

The Ohio Senate passed HB 386 earlier this month, but the Ohio House declined to concur on changes the Senate made to the bill, sending it to a conference committee to work out the differences.

Among the issues still being debated:

v Local government funding: Democrats, including Rep. Ron Gerberry from Austintown, want a dedicated funding stream for police, firefighters and other services in communities that are home to horse racing tracks with state-operated electronic slot machines. The proposal is $500,000 per community per year, or a total of about $3 million. But senators want those communities to make do with the increased tax collections that will come with new and improved racetrack properties.

Penn National Gaming Inc. of Pittsburgh recently purchased the 186-acre property at the undeveloped Center Pointe Business Park in Austintown for $4.6 million. Penn National intends to relocate Columbus’s Beulah Park to that site.

That issue has become a sticking point, Gerberry said.

“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get a resolution so these local communities will receive some type of compensation,” he said.

Gerberry said because a racetrack is such a large, expensive facility, a community that houses one should have the necessary police and fire staffing.

“The property and the horses are very valuable,” he said. “I think we’re going to have increased traffic and the need to maintain a strong fire department just in case.

Austintown Administrator Michael Dockry said he can’t recall another commercial business that has impacted the township’s safety forces as the racetrack could.

“When you get a facility like that you’re going to have more demands from your safety forces,” he said. “The money would go to help support the police and fire department, and obviously allow us to maybe hire more [personnel] to meet that demand.”

Dockry said municipalities such as Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus have received similar compensation.

He said that Republicans in the Senate claim the increase in property taxes the racetrack would generate would cover additional safety forces.

“Any business is going to help your property tax collection, no doubt about that,” he said. “But I don’t think it would help it to the extent of $500,000.”

v Charity Card Rooms: Republicans in the Senate attempted to amend the legislation to allow one charity card room with paid dealers per county statewide. The move caused an outcry, however, and was viewed as expanding casino-style gambling.

The provision was removed from the final version passed by the Senate but remains a topic of discussion among conferees.

Some members want to include language to allow the lone charitable card room operating in the state, in the Cleveland area, to continue and pay its dealers. Others say that would create a monopoly, and other counties should have the option of opening their own rooms.

v Internet cafes: The legislation includes a moratorium on the opening of new sweepstakes parlors, plus requirements that existing locations register with the attorney general’s office.

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