Ohio Is Latest State to Feel Pressure to Install Video Slots

What do you do if your state's budget is hard-up for cash and you'resurrounded by other states that have legalized video slot machines orgambling casinos? You do what Ohio is doing - you consider giving in andinstalling the slot machines yourself.

Ohio's new two-year state budget gives virtually no new money to state universities and many other state programs. Meanwhile, legislators are under pressure from an Ohio Supreme Court order to do more forelementary and high schools.

State Senator Lou Blessing says the solution is simple - install 1,500 video slot machines at 7 Ohio racetracks, give state government a cutoff the top, and watch as more than $400 million a year flows into the treasury.

Blessing says he's tired of watching helplessly as thousands of residents in his Cincinnati district cross the border to Indiana to gamble in riverboatcasinos and put money into that state's coffers. He also knows that Ohioans to the North head to casinos in Canada, and Ohioans in the Eastern part of the state play slot machines at racetracks in West Virginia. He's proposing legislators put a measure on the November ballot, so voters could amend the state constitution to legalize slot machines here.

A strange-bedfellows mix of liberals and conservatives in the legislature is organizing to deny Blessing the three-fifths supermajority heneeds to put his plan onto the ballot. They point to 24-year-old Rob Walgate of East Liverpool Ohio as a good argument against slot machines.

"When it hit rock bottom for me was the fact of losing over $20,000 in a five day period," says Walgate, referring to his teenage trips to racetracks in West Virginia where he played the slot machines.

"Video lottery machines are the crack cocaine of creating new hooked addicted gamblers," says John Kindt, a lawyer and commerce professor at the University of Illinois. Kindt has traveled to Ohio to lobby against installing slot machines here.

So has the Executive Director of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. Timothy Kelley notes the bi-partisan commission recommended in 1999 that video slot machines be unplugged and that no further gambling expansions be adopted by states. Some 15.4 million Americans are classified as problem gamblers, Kelley notes, adding that the poor gamble away a disproportionately large chunk of their income.

"This (slot machine plan) plan would not even be on the table, if it were not for high-powered lobbyists who are manipulating this behind thescenes," charges Rev. John Edgar, a Methodist minister who leads a religiousanti-gambling coalition that includes the Ohio Council of Churches.

One of those "high-powered lobbyists" is Neil Clark, who proudly represents one Ohio racetrack and IGT, a Nevada firm that manufacturers slot machines."My clients are looking at ways to enhance people coming to the tracks and saving a dying industry," says Clark. He also stresses the extra revenue could bail legislators out of a jam."It is far better than imposing another tax," he says.

"What part of "no" don't you understand?" responds Rev. Edgar. He notes that in 1990 and 1996, Ohioans voted 62% to 38% against legalizinggambling casinos, once on land and once on riverboats. He says installing slot machines at racetracks is virtually the same idea.

Lobbyist Clark is not firing back at Rev. Edgar and the other ministers leading the anti-gambling drive. "I am certainly not going to find fault with someone that may have an impact on my Judgement Day," hequips.

In the end, Clark and pro-gambling forces may indeed need help from a higher power. At the moment, the slot machine proposal is getting hearingsin the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which Senator Blessing chairs. But it's not clear if he has the votes to even get it out of committee and ontothe Senate floor for a vote.

Blessing's fellow Republicans control the Ohio Senate and House, but they're split over the idea of expanding gambling. In fact, Republican Governor Bob Taft is against the idea, and he promises to campaign against it, if it ever makes it to the Ohio ballot.


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