Published: Sunday, July 4, 2004
Ohio misses the boat on gambling
Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken has called on Gov. Bob Taft and the General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow casino- style gambling in big cities. Thus reported the Cincinnati Enquirer last week.
"My nightmare is that I'm going to wake up one morning and see casinos on the Ohio River, but they're on the Kentucky side looking at our skyline," the Enquirer quoted Luken as saying.
For the Mahoning Valley, the nightmare began years ago when slot machines were installed in Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va., an hour's drive from Youngstown.
And the nightmare promises to get even worse once slot machines begin cha-chinging in Pennsylvania. Gov. Ed Rendell proposed legalizing and taxing slots as a way of reducing more than $5 billion in residential property taxes that Pennsylvanians pay to fund schools.
Rendell led the charge to win support in the Legislature, and after a year of battles over where the slot parlors would be located and how many machines would be permitted, legislation is on the verge of being approved.
Thousands of slots
Thus, Pennsylvania will have 61,000 slot machines in up to eight horse racing tracks, five stand-alone sites and two resorts.
A license for a racetrack has been awarded to MTR Gaming Group Inc. of Chester, W.Va. Yes, the owner of Mountaineer plans to build a facility near Erie, Pa., and has proposed a $120 million Keystone Downs thoroughbred track in Allegheny County.
There is also a bid for a license for a resort that would be near New Castle, a stone's throw from Mahoning County.
Talk about a major blow to the Valley's economy. But it isn't just slots in Pennsylvania that will attract residents of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.
West Virginia is proposing to permit local referendums to expand gambling at horse racing tracks to include table games such as blackjack, poker, craps and roulette.
Why? Here's an explanation from Ted Arneault, chief executive of MTR Gaming Group, as reported by the Associated Press:
"Table-game customers right now are probably going to Atlantic City or Vegas. I think what we would be doing is expanding the pie, not cutting it up thinner."
So when Cincinnati's mayor, Luken, talks about the nightmare of seeing casinos on the Ohio River but on the Kentucky side elected officials in the Mahoning Valley know well what he's talking about. The dollar flow to West Virginia and soon to Pennsylvania is hurting the region.
Yet, Taft and Republicans in the General Assembly cling to the notion that gambling is inherently harmful to society and does not contribute to the economic wellbeing of the state.
However, these Republicans certainly aren't rushing to do away with the Ohio Lottery, which pulled in $648 million this fiscal year $10 million more than last year. Incidentally, if slot machines are the crack cocaine of gambling, then so are the scratch-off instant lottery tickets. The Ohio Lottery's aggressive campaign to sell instants that range from $1 a ticket to $20 a ticket is paying dividends. Sales of instants rose 2 percent.
What does this mean? Simply that Ohioans, like other Americans, enjoy gambling and do so in a big way.
According to the Dayton Daily News, Ohioans wagered $30 billion or more on legal and illegal gaming in 2001. Of that, $5.8 billion was on charitable bingo games, which are an important source of revenue for many Catholic churches.
And, the Daily News reported, Ohioans spent between $12.2 billion and $14.2 billion on gambling outside of the state. Las Vegas, Atlantic City, 10 riverboat casinos in Indiana and West Virginia racetracks with slot machines were the recipients of Ohio dollars.
Nonetheless, voters in the Buckeye State have twice said no to casino-style gambling. Why? Because this governor and his two predecessors, George V. Voinovich and Richard Celeste, led the opposition to the expansion of gambling.
But despite the position taken by Taft, the GOP dominated General Assembly is now considering a plan to put video lottery terminals at Ohio's seven horse tracks.
On the other hand, the riverboats that the mayor of Cincinnati would like see plying the Ohio River on the Ohio side won't be coming any time soon.
That's because Ohio's politicians and religious leaders are comfortable in their hypocrisy about gambling.