Sunday, Jun 26, 2016
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Paying for addiction

The Ohio Lottery Commission wants to allow horse racetracks to stay open all night, so that gamblers can feed money into slot machines 24/7. The legislative committee that has the final say on lottery rules should scratch this idea before it gets out of the gate.

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By 2013, there could be as many as 26,000 legal slot machines operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 11 locations across Ohio. More than 9,000 will be in the four new casinos in Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Some 17,500 more could be at Ohio's seven racetracks, which would lack only gaming tables to qualify as casinos.

Lottery Commission officials want to maximize the state's gambling tax receipts. The state imposed a 33 percent tax rate when Ohioans voted in 2009 to allow casino gambling. Gov. John Kasich got the same rate for the state from track owners when he negotiated an end-run around voters last year to expand electronic slot machines -- called video lottery terminals -- to racetracks.

Track owners want a piece of the 24-hour gambling pie. Pennsylvania-based Penn National Gaming, which owns Raceway Park in Toledo and Beulah Park near Columbus as well as the Toledo casino scheduled to open this year, has interests in both segments.

Who will pump coins into a slot machine all night, especially at a track that late at night will lack even the minimal distraction of racing horses? Odds are that they largely will be problem gamblers and addicts who always think the next coin will hit the jackpot.

Before the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review signs off on the new rules, it should acknowledge the increase in gambling addiction that is likely to attend the sudden availability of tens of thousands of slot machines, day and night, around the state.

The National Council on Problem Gambling reports that 1 percent of American adults are addicted to gambling. Another 2 to 3 percent of adults are problem gamblers. A 2005 Cleveland State University study estimated that opening casinos statewide would result in 109,000 more gambling-addicted Ohioans.

Treating these addicts could cost the state more than $23 million a year, the study said. The Lottery Commission now contributes less than $500,000 a year to addiction services.

When casino developers wrote their constitutional amendment, they designated 2 percent of the state's share of revenues for gambling addiction and substance abuse treatment. When all four casinos are fully operating, that will be about $12 million a year.

None of the revenue from racetrack slots is designated for addiction treatment. So lawmakers could have to decide whether -- and how -- to make up an $11 million shortfall in treatment costs.

Toledo doesn't have a horse in this race, because Penn National plans to close Raceway Park rather than compete with itself for gambling dollars. Lawmakers could decline to pay the costs of the increase in gambling opportunities for Ohioans. Ohio taxpayers -- including Toledoans -- will be stuck with that bill.

All-night gambling creates other problems. Who will pay for local governments' increased police and fire protection costs associated with 24-hour operation? Who will foot the bill for infrastructure improvements made necessary by increased vehicle traffic?

But the human toll is the most disturbing. Until lawmakers figure out how to pay that cost, they should reject this attempt to squeeze every last nickel out of the gambling public.

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