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Published: Monday, 5/17/2004

Fate of video gambling plan remains uncertain

COLUMBUS - State Rep. Bill Seitz walked up the staircase toward the Ohio House chamber and stopped briefly near the entrance.

The Cincinnati Republican has honchoed talks to put a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot to allow Ohio's seven horse-racing tracks, including Toledo's Raceway Park, to install 2,150 video gambling machines at each track.

"At least as far as I know, the language is worked out," Mr. Seitz told a reporter.

And when would the House Rules and Reference Committee send the resolution to a committee or to the House floor?

Mr. Seitz said only House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) could resolve that persistent query. And last Wednesday, Mr. Householder didn't have time, even in the unlikely event he had wanted to answer that question.

Business lobbyists swarmed the corridors, pushing and prodding over the fine print in a bill to favor companies on the hook in asbestos lawsuits.

There was no resolution, which arguably was the best outcome for a House speaker whose term ends at the end of this year and who may face two years in the wilderness before the 2006 statewide elections.

The outcome on using slot machines to turn horse-racing tracks into "racinos" also is uncertain. The deadline for the legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot is Aug. 4.

Pro-gambling legislators and lobbyists have an artificial deadline of the end of this month for a vote, because they plan to wrap up work for the summer.

The ballot issue calls for the state's take of the revenue to be divvied up as follows:

  • 50 percent to provide scholarships to high school students in the top 5 percent of their class if they go to an Ohio university, and to enable children from lower-income families to start in kindergarten to earn points toward scholarships.

  • 30 percent for basic aid to public schools.

  • 20 percent on early childhood education programs such as Head Start.

    "It is about time for the voters to decide," said House Minority Leader Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), who supports the proposed expansion of gambling.

    To put the issue on the ballot, backers need a three-fifths majority in each chamber - at least 20 votes in the 33-member Senate and 60 in the 99-member House.

    "Nip and tuck" is how state Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls) referred to the vote last week in the Senate. As far as the House, Mr. Coughlin replied: "It comes down to one man pulling the lever. Householder has to decide."

    Last week, Mr. Householder appeared to be applying the brakes, reiterating his concerns about using half of the state's take for what he says would be a new spending program that could morph into an entitlement - college scholarships.

    Mr. Coughlin said he doesn't like the latest proposal, but he's leaning in favor of voting for it.

    The irony is that the proposal likely has the best shot at getting on the ballot, but it may be the least likely to win voter approval on Nov. 2.

    Legislators, especially a bright Bowling Green State University grad like Mr. Coughlin, haven't forgotten how superintendents campaigned against the 1998 sales-tax rate increase that Gov. George Voinovich proposed as a way to help resolve the school-funding lawsuit.

    Public school officials referred to the ballot issue as "Lottery II," and voters killed it 80-20 percent.

    Putting slots-for-education on the Nov. 2 ballot would breathe new life into the myth that legislators promised the Ohio Lottery would resolve the school-funding debate, Mr. Coughlin said.

    Backers say they will blunt the "whatever happened to the lottery money?" argument through a provision that states: "None of the moneys expended hereunder on scholarships, school payments, or early childhood education programs may supplant or replace existing expenditures by the General Assembly on said programs."

    Mr. Coughlin prefers the plan he shepherded through the Senate last October.

    Starting with the class of 2005, it would have provided annual scholarships of $5,900 for public or private school students who place in the top 10 percent of their high school class and enroll in a public or private university. The amount would have increased by 5 percent each year.

    That plan died in the House, with suspicions that it tracked too closely to the proposal first floated by state Sen. Eric Fingerhut, the Cleveland Democrat who is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. George Voinovich.

    Mr. Coughlin said another sub-plot puzzles him.

    "You have people in the House Republican caucus who say they are fiscal conservatives. And they want to throw more money into the general revenue fund through K-12 and early childhood education programs, ramping up spending and the size of government.

    "So it baffles me. The [college] scholarship program is not a new entitlement program. It is separate and outside state government. And the way it was set up, it would not be bailed out by the general revenue fund. I thought that would be very attractive to those who are fiscal conservatives," he said.

    But, referring to the House, Mr. Coughlin added: "Funny things happen over there."



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