Ohio Gaming Supporters Want Statewide Poll

by John Kady and Tom LaMarra

Gambling interests have agreed to poll Ohio voters on the issues of casinos and video lottery terminals at racetracks in the state. The decision came during a March 24 meeting loosely dubbed the Ohio Gaming Summit.

"There was a surprising degree of unanimity," said Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati-area Republican who called the meeting.

An aide to Seitz said details of the wording of the poll haven't been worked out, but the vote would cover Ohioans opinions on VLTs at racetracks as well and casinos operated by Indiana tribes.

"We really need to see what Ohioans, as voters, are willing to accept," said Neil Clark, a lobbyist for horse racing interests. "We'll be looking at doing more research."

Ohioans have twice voted down gambling proposals when they were put on the ballot. However, proponents of expanded gambling in the Buckeye state note the state is losing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to casinos and racinos neighboring state such as Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, and soon Pennsylvania.

Several Ohio cities have recently expressed interest in hosting Indian casinos. The state's seven racetracks, all strategically located in or near major cities, for years have lobbied for VLTs.

Racing interests are represented on the Ohio Horse Council, which has attempted to develop a grass-roots approach to the legislature. Last year, lawmakers discussed VLT legislation but racing interests couldn't agree on the splits.

A proposal that would have given only 7.5% of VLT revenue to purses and breed development was fought by a handful of well-connected individuals who sought a higher percentage more in line with other racino states. The average is roughly 15%.

Each year, Ohio racing seems to lose ground, and this year is no exception. Through March 19, total handle in the state was $87.8 million, down from $95 million for the same period in 2003. Thoroughbred handle was down 8.2%, while Standardbred handle was off 7%.

Republican Gov. Bob Taft has strongly opposed any expansion of gambling in Ohio, and was joined in his opposition by Republican Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, a former governor of the state.

Attorney General Jim Petro, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, has said he also opposes any expansion of gambling.