COLUMBUS - Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly yesterday handed Gov. Bob Taft the authority to enroll Ohio in a multistate lottery. Now he has to decide where to place his bets.
By next summer, Ohioans are expected to be able to go to the corner store rather than across state lines to play Powerball or the Big Game, the two large, multistate lotteries in which prizes can measure in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Ohio expects to add $41 million a year to its coffers by joining such a game.
Mr. Taft expects a recommendation from lottery commission Executive Director Dennis Kennedy in the next few weeks as to which game to join. Mr. Kennedy said the choice has come down to Powerball, which includes 21 states and Washington D.C., and the Big Game, which encompasses seven large industrial states, including Michigan.
He noted that both have advantages and disadvantages, but Powerball has higher name recognition and has been more successful in building huge jackpots. Although both games' memberships have roughly the same total population, Powerball's states are more spread out geographically and border more states from which to draw ticket buyers.
Mr. Kennedy has decided not to pursue further talks with Pennsylvania about creating a game.
“We went into this to be in a better position to compete with bigger jackpots,” Mr. Kennedy said . “We don't feel that, even if we cooperated with Pennsylvania, that we could get the jackpots to the level where players want them to be.”
Ohio would have to ask to be admitted to either multistate game it pursues. Chuck Strutt, executive director of Powerball operator Multi-State Lottery Association, said he doesn't believe Ohio's application would be denied, despite the fact that three neighboring Powerball states, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, would have votes.
“The states recognize that adding population to a game improves the game and makes it stronger,” Mr. Strutt said. No state has veto power over another's application.
The Ohio House and Senate voted 53-43 and 18-14 respectively yesterday to send Mr. Taft a bill designed to close a $1.5 billion gap in the two-year budget. The measure passed entirely on the backs of Republicans.
In addition to the multistate lottery, the bill counts on a couple of small business tax increases, spending cuts, a bookkeeping gimmick involving leased vehicles, a $248 million raid on the state's contingency fund, and the borrowing of $260 million from the state's settlement with major tobacco companies.
In the House, no lawmaker representing northwest Ohio broke ranks. In the Senate, however, state Sen. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) and Sen. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana), a staunch gambling opponent, were among three negative GOP votes.
Under the Ohio Constitution, lottery proceeds must be used for education. But to help balance the budget, this bill decreases general fund budget appropriations for education a like amount.
“All those times we're back home trying to convince folks to pass those local levies by saying every dollar [from the lottery] goes to local education, we won't be able to say that anymore,” said state Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island).
Republicans, however, countered that the formula in the budget for K-12 education is fully funded and that the budgetary maneuver doesn't deny schools any money.
“The multistate lottery is merely going to stabilize lottery profits over the long term,” Governor Taft said. “We're not going to see a huge new amount of dollars, but it will prevent the decline in lottery profits that we have been experiencing in the last few years.”
A number of Republicans who'd signed pledges opposing gambling expansion found themselves defending their votes in favor of the bill.
“I'm going to lobby the governor not to join the multistate lottery,” said state Rep. Mike Gilb (R., Findlay) after voting for a budget-fix plan that banks on $41 million from the new game.
The bill provides for a study to examine the gambling issue in Ohio, but the pursuit of a multistate game will continue in the meantime.
“How can you give permission to do a multistate lottery and then say that you think there are so many things wrong with it that we think we should study it in detail?” asked the Rev. John Edgar, leader of an anti-gambling coalition in Ohio. “That doesn't make sense.”
State Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green), who also voted for the bill, said he would support legislation to eliminate the Ohio Lottery. He insisted that position and his vote are not inconsistent, adding that he believes lawmakers simply reiterated their opinion that Mr. Taft has the authority to pursue a multistate game.