Ohio Tracks Eye Way to Force Action on VLTs

Ohio racetracks are considering a push for a 2011 ballot issue that would ask voters to repeal the casino bill recently signed by Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. The bill sets rules for the state’s four planned casinos, which the financially struggling tracks fear will further hurt their business.

Putting the matter on the ballot could stall the opening of the casinos, which were approved by voters last year for Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo.

The tracks would need 240,000-plus signatures to get the issue before voters. The bill signed by Strickland June 10 does not become law for 90 days, which gives the tracks a window to circulate petitions.

“We’re exploring all of our legal and constitutional options,” said David Paragas, a lobbyist for the Equine Agricultural Coalition who represents four of Ohio’s seven racetracks.

A separate proposal before voters this November seeks to stop a plan Strickland proffered last year to place video lottery terminals at the racetracks in an effort to plug an $850 million budget hole. Track owners hope to convince the group behind that referendum to withdraw it by an Aug. 24 deadline so the racetrack VLT plan can move forward.

Racetracks would rather work with casino supporters than against them, River Downs general manager Jack Hanessian said.

“I don’t think it’s the wisest thing to do,” he said, referring to the possible 2011 ballot issue, “but it’s a way of delaying what they are doing. It’s leverage to get them to give up their referendum.”

It is believed the casino backers are behind this year’s referendum, but they haven’t confirmed that. Individuals with the group, LetOhioVote.org, have been subpoaened by the state.

If racetracks try to fight the casino rules, it could lead to delays in the licensing and opening of the casinos as well as a delay in the creation of the Ohio Casino Control Commission, which is to regulate the casino industry, Hanessian said.

Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said the governor intends to ask a common pleas court for a judgment that would VLTs at tracks if necessary.

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