Group submits proposal for 4 casinos in Ohio

Mar 12, 2009 1:01 AM
Staff & Wire Reports |

A petition seeking voter approval of casinos in four Ohio cities was submitted to the state attorney general for review Wednesday as state regulators explore a separate plan that would allow slots at racetracks without a vote.

The Ohio Jobs and Growth Committee said the casino proposal would lead to $1 billion in private investment, $600 million in tax revenue and 20,000 new jobs. Casinos would be built in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo.

If Attorney General Richard Cordray approves proposed constitutional amendment language, the group will begin gathering signatures toward placing the issue on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Racing Commission plans to submit details of a competing proposal for state-run slot machines at seven horse racetracks. The group argued that lawmakers can act independently of voters and should seize the opportunity to take control of the endless parade of gambling proposals and look out for the state's economic interests.

"This petition they submit today will cut out racetracks," said commission executive director Sam Zonak. "They want casinos in four cities. That's not going to help us."

A vote in November would be the fifth time in 20 years and the second in the past year. In November, Ohio voters rejected a ballot proposal to allow a casino in southwest Ohio.

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Backers of the latest casino proposal made the standard pitch that casinos would create jobs and tax money for communities around Ohio, but a vote this year would come amid the backdrop of a recession.

David Zanotti, president of the conservative-leaning Ohio Roundtable, a group of business and community leaders that has fought the gambling issues, belittled the proposal as a money-grab rerun.

"Ohioans have rejected a single casino, they have rejected multiple casinos," he said. "There's really virtually nothing new here. You still have the same model of people trying to use the state Constitution to pick winners and losers and leave Ohioans with the bill."

Zanotti said he doubted the recession would give the jobs pitch extra resonance. "Ohioans are very smart about casinos. They get it. They know the money has to go in first before it can come out. If there's less money today than there was in the past, they can't create jobs for nothing," Zanotti said.

Casino proposals in the past also have met opposition from church groups, and the Ohio Council of Churches, representing 17 mainline Christian denominations with 2 million members, will fight the proposal, according to Tom Smith, public policy director. The council fears gambling hits the pocketbooks of the poor hardest, he said.

Gov. Ted Strickland believes casinos are not the best economic development tool for Ohio and the latest proposal appears similar to an earlier one that he opposed, spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said.

Meanwhile, the racing commission has begun looking into whether it can approve slot machines at race tracks without a voter-approved constitutional amendment.

A memo from Commissioner Tom Zaino said the issue of whether slots are banned "lotteries" might be avoided if a state agency operates the gambling venture.

"In this way, constitutional problems are avoided, there would be no need to amend Ohio's Constitution in order to have legal use of slot machines and/or other gaming, and the state could maximize tax revenue and regulation of gambling," the Feb. 19 memo said.

"There seems to be this belief that the Constitution prevents gambling in the state of Ohio, and that's not true. What it prevents is a lottery, unless it's operated by the government," Zaino told The Associated Press.

His reading of the law is that lawmakers could authorize slots, but there's a danger that someone would sue on constitutional grounds - so the memo suggests the state operate slots at the tracks as if they were a lottery.

He said the commission has been asked to present a proposal soon to the lawmakers, and that it will lean toward recommending legalized state-run slots.