Ohio Lawmakers Look to Put VLTs at Tracks to Help Schools

Facing a state Supreme Court deadline of June 15 to deal with public school funding problems, Republican members of the Ohio House of Representatives apparently are behind a plan to install video lottery machines at racetracks to raise between $230 million to $930 million in revenue over the next two years. Tom Smith, director of public policy for the Ohio Council of Churches and a leading opponent of the expansion of gambling, was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch as saying the proposal is "odds on" to gain approval in the House.

One published report said the proposal would allow each of Ohio's seven racetracks to install about 1,500 VLTs, the type of electronic gambling devices that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and fueled purses to record levels at neighboring racetracks in West Virginia. As in West Virginia, the VLTs would likely fall under the authority of the state lottery. John Engelhardt, director of publicity at River Downs in Cincinnati, said Ohio tracks would welcome the proposal with open arms. "We look to the east to Mountaineer Park (in West Virginia) and see what they've done with purses because of VLTs. It's fantastic. To have a shot in the arm like that would be sensational. Just to the west of us are all the casino boats (in Indiana), where we estimate 80% of the cars have Ohio license plates." The combination of VLTs to the east and casinos to the west has left Ohio tracks with low purses and struggling to keep some horses from leaving the state.

Engelhardt said the proposal was not generated by the racing industry, but was brought to them by House Republicans. "We will try to reach out in support of the proposal and talk about the agricultural outshake in racing. Revenue from this won't just go into the pockets of the racetracks. When larger purses are available to horsemen, a lot of that money goes back to breeding farms."

Tom McCann, president of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners, said his organization has not been given any specifics on the proposal. "Obviously, we are interested," he said, "but we're not really in the position of being the people pushing it. We are watching to see what will happen."

Ohio's public school funding crisis resulted from litigation by a public interest group, the Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. The proposal from House Speaker Larry Householder reportedly would earmark an additional $3.2 million on schools, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The plan would spend $1 billion more each year than plans endorsed by Gov. Bob Taft or Senate Republicans. Householder would not confirm whether VLTs were part of his funding solution for Ohio's schools. "That's a question for down the road," the Dispatch quoted him as saying. A spokesman for Taft, who was in South America on a trade mission, said the governor "continues to have reservations about video lottery terminals as a source of funding." Taft apparently does support efforts to bring a multi-state lottery to Ohio.

If the measure is introduced and passes, it would then go to the Senate for approval and to Taft for his signature in early June. Ohio's budget year begins July 1.