OHIO Gov. Ted Strickland took a lot of flak recently for doing a political flip-flop on gambling to bail the state out of a budget crunch. And well he should have, considering that only months ago he initiated a successful crusade to outlaw video slot machines popping up in bars and taverns all over the state. Many Ohio voters, who have roundly defeated proposals to expand gambling three times in the past, applauded the governor's action.
But when the same politician, who as a Democratic candidate for governor campaigned against a statewide issue to legalize slot machines at horse tracks, subsequently proposed putting state-run gambling machines in said tracks, bars, and taverns, public reaction to the official hypocrisy was understandably negative. But there's more to this story than just the governor's poor judgment.
There's the unwillingness of the general public to talk tax increases - ever. Officeholders who want to keep their jobs understand that to even broach the subject, when debating how in the world to pay for state services with depleted revenues and huge budget shortfalls, is a career killer.
Yet when cutting jobs, closing facilities, paring programs, and tacking "user" fees on everything the state can get away with still doesn't generate enough money to keep the budget afloat, what's a governor to do? Part of the problem is people have grown to expect something for nothing.
We pay our taxes, and no one wants to pay more. But we still want more from government, from new and improved roads to top-performing schools with quality teachers, and we expect the state to provide what is always has without canceling our tax cuts.
So Governor Strickland can't ask the public to help bail out the state and knows that raising taxes would never fly anyway in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. But there aren't a lot of options left that would produce enough money to keep the state budget in the black.
Besides proposing more "revenue enhancers" (see user fees and "sin" taxes) and trying to sneak gambling into Ohio under the guise of helping schools, what other tools do leaders like Mr. Strickland have to grow the state's diminishing returns? Look, nobody wants to say the "r" word, but we're in a recession folks.
Jobs are gone. Plants are closed. People are spending less. Sales and corporate taxes are down. And the state is stuck with a struggling budget. Along with cutbacks and zeroing out all accounts, it must get creative in finding ways to save money without interfering with essential government services.
And even with all of the cost-cutting schemes enacted, the governor may still have to tap into the state's $1 billion rainy-day fund to make up the difference. Does a tough budget bind under economic duress excuse the Strickland gamble to help fill a looming $733 million budget gap by installing Keno slot machines across Ohio? No. But it might explain why a popular official might be willing to bet a whole lot of political capital against his better judgment to fix a fiscal dilemma.
Mr. Strickland has to be aware that the numbers game he is pushing, which looks like a gambling machine with a small flat-screen TV, will hook some people who can least afford to plunk down a handful of bills for multiple drawings every hour. It won't be the wealthy losing hard-earned income in the hopes of winning a big money prize on randomly picked numbers.
And despite what the Strickland administration says about its automated numbers game with cash payouts being different than the cash-paying video games banned in Ohio just six months ago, no one is fooled. Gambling is fine in the state as long as the government gets to run it and net a profit of $73 million a year.
"It [Keno] will certainly involve expanded opportunities for revenue," said the governor. Terrific. Budget problem solved and voters can keep their tax rebates, too. But what are the odds that some of the dollars pumped into the state from its expanded gaming proposition will be set aside for those who develop gambling addictions playing the numbers?
Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.
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