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Published: Wednesday, 1/21/2009

Betting on a bad economy

GAMING interests have packaged and repackaged gambling four times in an attempt to make it attractive to Ohio voters, and four times voters have responded with an emphatic no.

This time around, the gambling folks are betting that state and local budget deficits, shrinking tax revenues, growing numbers of empty homes and store fronts, and disappearing jobs will have voters - and state lawmakers - dreaming of jackpots as a way to bail the state out of its fiscal problems.

Casino proponents are floating two plans, one by Penn National Gaming, the company behind Toledo Raceway Park, and the other by the two Cleveland-area developers responsible for the ballot issue voters rejected in November that would have given them a casino monopoly in southwest Ohio.

The Penn National proposal, presented to Gov. Ted Strickland and Senate President Bill Harris last week, asks lawmakers to back a November ballot measure to place casinos at the state's seven horse tracks, as well as stand-alone casinos in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus.

The latest idea out of Cleveland also includes gambling houses in the three C's, and possibly in Toledo and Youngstown.

So far, most of the state's leaders are hedging their bets, insisting that they remain opposed to expanding gambling but allowing as how it would be unwise not to listen to the pro-casino crowd in light of the woeful state of Ohio's economy.

Unfortunately, the new House Speaker, Armond Budish, seems open to the idea. The Beachwood Democrat called legalized gambling "an option" as the state looks for ways to "minimize the harm" from projected budget cuts.

It is only natural for people to be tempted by the promise of instant riches. That's what draws folks into casinos in the first place, and it's the same appeal that lures people to buy the lottery tickets sold by the state. Casinos and lottery games both depend on human weakness, and they are seldom disappointed. Ohio officials knew that when the state went into the lottery business 35 years ago.

And it is understandable that lawmakers might find the prospect of casino jobs and taxes especially alluring as they try to figure out how to plug the more than $7 billion hole in the state's next biennial budget. But they should not be fooled. Even in a strong economy, casinos bring with them an increase in social problems, including crime, prostitution, and gambling addiction, destroying lives and families in the process.

When the economy struggles, as it is doing now, it becomes increasingly tempting for many to take money needed for food, rent, or medicine and bet it instead on a spin of a roulette wheel or the turn of a card. The only sure thing is that the developers who own the casinos will get very, very rich.

Pro-gambling groups need to cash in their chips and find a new game somewhere else. Ohio's voters have spoken again and again on this issue, declaring that they have no desire to rebuild the state's economy by taking advantage of human frailty.



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