Politicians try gambling as fiscal cure

Jun 23, 2009 5:03 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Slots, racinos touted as the states’ savior

The pols took over horseracing in America last week, for better and for worse.

The most startling and surprising development came in Ohio, where Gov. Ted Strickland, who opted for keno over slots at Ohio’s seven tracks a year or two ago, announced he reluctantly had come to realize the error of his ways. He told his legislature that to achieve a balanced budget without raising taxes, he wants VLTs at the tracks.

The news hit Ohio’s racing community like a thunderbolt. It is not a done deal, of course, simply by the governor’s pronouncement. In neighboring Kentucky the governor’s wishes for the same thing were shattered by a rebellious Senate, but in Ohio the governor’s backing opens the way for quick legislative action.

Strickland made it clear the state cannot wait for a public vote next November.

"In order for this to be a workable strategy," he said, "I believe that legislative approval, rather than a ballot initiative, is necessary to receive the new revenue in a timely way to balance the budget without a tax increase."

The "new revenue," by the governor’s calculations, will net the state $765 million in the first year.

Strickland was not happy about his decision to let the tracks have slots.

"This has been a difficult choice for me," he said, "but I believe a necessary one. It is contrary to what I ever thought I would have to do." But to his credit he did it, and most likely saved horseracing in Ohio by his turnaround.

What happens next, with powerful Penn National Gaming leading the charge for casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo, remains to be seen. If the issue goes to the electorate in November, which depends on obtaining more than 400,000 petition signatures, Ohioans might finally give up on their staunch opposition to casino gambling. They have voted it down time after time, but if the tracks get slots the populace may figure it might as well have the full course in the cities.

In neighboring Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear gambled his campaign promise of slots at tracks…and apparently lost. The House passed the measure 52-45, but the powerful president of the Senate, Republican David Williams, promised the bill would be dead on arrival there.

Williams told the press, "You can stick a fork in it. It’s done."

In New Hampshire, both houses voted down the slots-at-tracks idea, but the chief backer of the idea, Senator Lou D’Allesandro, said he and like-minded senators are going to force the issue at the time the budget is voted on by the House and Senate. One of his colleagues, Senator Michael Downing, said the state "desperately needs the jobs and the revenues that slots would bring in."

In New York, politicians once again promised something they may not be able to deliver.

The state told the six bidders who want to build or operate the big Aqueduct racino that they will have to scuffle and provide pages and pages of new information, pronto, because Albany plans to announce a winner by Aug. 1.

That hardly seems possible when the president of the Senate gets to vote, and no one knows who the president of the Senate is after the palace revolt of June 15. That’s when two Democratic senators reached for plums and voted with Republicans to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, who won it in last November’s election for the first time in 40 years. The turncoats gave the Republicans a 32-30 majority, but then one of them reneged on the deal, leaving the Senate deadlocked at 31-31. Two presidents of the Senate are one more than needed – maybe even two more – but until this mess gets straightened out a vote on the winner at Aqueduct is unlikely, or perhaps impossible.

In Illinois the riverboat casinos, who were shut out by the U.S. Supreme Court in their quest to keep $80 million payback due the state’s tracks and horsemen, tried a new tactic. They sued the disgraced ex-governor, Reachin’ Rod Blagojevich, saying his actions in soliciting bribes from tracks to assure passage of the subsidy bill "directly victimized" them. The bribes were never paid, according to attorneys for the tracks, but the riverboats want the court to put the $80 million in a "constructive trust" rather than pay it to the racing crowd.

Aren’t you glad you live in Vegas?

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein