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Published: Saturday, 2/9/2008

Gambling with Ohio's budget

GAMBLING by any other name is still gambling. And it certainly is odd, not to mention hypocritical, for Gov. Ted Strickland to vehemently oppose one game of chance in Ohio's bars and taverns, then turn around and propose another as savior for the state's ailing budget.

Remarkably, that is what Mr. Strickland is doing with his plan to install a new lottery-run gambling game called Club Keno to raise $73 million to help head off the deficit.

We supported the governor's successful crusade last year to outlaw video gambling games, such as the popular Tic Tac Fruit, in bar and gaming businesses. Mr. Strickland even got the legislature to pass a law strengthening the definition of legal "skill-based" electronic games, which banned cash payouts altogether and prohibited prizes worth more than $10.

Now, faced with a budget deficit estimated at anywhere from $733 million to $1.9 billion by the end of June, 2009, Mr. Strickland has astounded and disappointed even his supporters by latching onto expanding the lottery, a suspect source of revenue as public schools have learned over the years.

Mr. Strickland says the lottery would operate Club Keno, which he insists is completely different from the electronic slot machines he put out of business.

But like those video gambling attractions, Club Keno is also a game that relies on the luck of the draw. You plunk down a wager - in Michigan, Keno players can bet from $1 to $20 dollars a game - pick a set of numbers, and hope your choices match numbers drawn randomly. The top payout in Michigan is $2 million on a $20 bet.

Ohio's version of Keno is not yet fully developed but proponents are already thinking big. The administration is gambling its version will bring in $73 million a year to offset the budget shortfall, which is looming like Mount Everest.

When the state is facing a deficit, it is understandable, essential even, that leaders in Columbus explore a wide range of options to pare programs, cut jobs, close facilities, and find new ways to increase revenue.

But to settle on what would amount to a government numbers game is simply inviting potential problems associated with gambling that are well-known to Ohioans, who in 2006 soundly rejected casino wagering masquerading as help for college scholarships.

Sen. George Voinovich, who served two terms as governor, sees little distinction between the slot machines Mr. Strickland previously vanquished and the Keno proposal, which he predicts would be "a foot in the door for full-blown gambling in Ohio."

Governor Strickland should heed his warning. Gambling by any other name is still gambling.

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