Ohio Tracks in Line for Gaming Machines?

The dropping of a November referendum could give Ohio racetracks gaming machines.

LetOhioVote.org said June 28 it has asked the state to remove its referendum on racetrack video lottery terminals from the November ballot, possibly clearing the way for gaming at Ohio’s seven racetracks.

The move has been rumored for more than a month in horse racing circles. Earlier this year, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office began an investigation into the funding of the ballot measure and issued subpoenas in that regard; to date, the names of the financial backers haven’t been made public.

Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in 2009 issued a directive authorizing racetrack VLTs and the Ohio legislature passed accompanying legislation. Lawsuits were filed, and LetOhioVote.org pursued the ballot question for 2010.

The ballot issue committee of LetOhioVote.org, in a letter to Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, outlined the reasons for yanking the measure.

“Since the time this petition was initiated, there have been a number of important changes in the legal landscape with respect to gaming in Ohio,” the letter states. “Gaming has been legalized in the state by the voters’ recent passage of Issue 3, and it is now being overseen by the Casino Control Commission, which the legislature was constitutionally required to create for that purpose.

“Additionally, the governor has indicated that he will soon be asking the courts to determine whether placing video slot machines in Ohio horse racing tracks, which are under the oversight of the Ohio Racing Commission, are already authorized by the existing laws governing the lottery.”

“Our reasons for moving forward were premised on the belief that the legislature should not negate the peoples’ right to referendum, and voters should have the opportunity to affirm expanded gambling in Ohio,” committee member Tom Brinkman said in a statement. “We successfully defended Ohioans’ referendum rights with our victory in the Ohio Supreme Court last year, and then the voters approved a casino gambling amendment.

“With our primary goals accomplished, it seems imprudent to proceed with a campaign that can be easily rendered moot by a court decision or new legislation authorizing VLTs.”

The action comes less than a week after the racing commission approved the sale of Beulah Park and Thistledown to casino companies. When the deals close, Penn National Gaming Inc. will own Beulah Park and Harrah’s Entertainment will get Thistledown.

PNGI already owns Raceway Park, an Ohio harness track, and will operate two of the four casinos authorized by Ohio voters last year. Harrah’s Entertainment has said a partnership involved in building the other two full-scale casinos could end up with a piece of Thistledown.

River Downs is the only Ohio Thoroughbred track not to be sold to a casino company, but its owners have been talking with gaming interests for more than a year.

Under Strickland’s directive, which was designed to raise money for the state budget, each track could operate up to 2,500 VLTs under the auspices of the Ohio Lottery. Each track would have to pay a $65-million licensing fee under the directive.

Strickland has indicated this year he would move ahead with the racetrack VLT plan.