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Published: Thursday, 6/12/2003

Senate reworks video gambling

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - A new proposal would require the state's share of money from video gambling machines at Ohio's horse-racing tracks to help buy prescription drugs for the poor, provide college scholarships for Ohio's best students, and build public schools.

The plan surfaced as some Republican state senators tried to gain Democratic votes to put the video gambling machine issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. The constitutional amendment would allow up to 2,500 slot machines at each of Ohio's tracks, including Toledo's Raceway Park.

“I agree with anything that helps VLTs pass,” said state Sen. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati). He used the acronym for video lottery terminals, also referred to as electronic slot machines.

The Senate delayed a vote until next week on a resolution to put the issue on the ballot and a bill that would outline how the state's slice of the added gambling dollars would be spent.

Under the proposal, 40 percent of the state's share would be reserved for the purchase of prescription drugs, 40 percent for college scholarships, and the remaining 20 percent for the construction of public school buildings.

Backers have said the state's share of the video gambling machine revenue would be about $550 million per year.

State Sen. Robert Hagan (D., Youngstown) said the prescription drug program would be similar to one in Pennyslvania. The goal would be to use gambling dollars to offer discounts to about 500,000 of the estimated 2.2 million people without prescription drug coverage or who are underinsured, Mr. Hagan said.

Lobbyist Neil Clark, who represents Beulah Park in Grove City, near Columbus, said he is optimistic the Senate will approve the plan and voters will respond positively to using 40 percent of the proceeds for prescription drugs.

Senate President Doug White (R., Manchester) wouldn't comment about how he thinks the money should be spent.

“I'm not in supportive of gaming. I'm supportive of people having the right to vote,” he said.

Senators had talked about setting aside 25 percent for college scholarships, but state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D., Cleveland) wants enough money to offer the scholarships to Ohio high school students in the top 5 percent of their classes, Mr. Blessing said. Mr. Fingerhut confirmed that account.

“We'll see how much money we got, and whatever we got we'll use for scholarships. If it funds the top 5 percent, fine,” Mr Blessing said.

To put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, backers need to get at least 20 votes in the 33-member Senate.

Faced with opposition from conservative Republicans, Mr. Blessing said he needs at least six Democratic votes in favor of the resolution to put the issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.

House Speaker Larry Householder (R., Glenford) continues to defend the House's approach to the video gambling machine issue. The House version of the two-year state operating budget says if voters approve video gambling machines on Nov. 4, a proposed sales tax rate increase from 5 percent to 6 percent would lapse July 1, 2004.

Of the video gambling effort, Mr. Householder said: “I think they're wasting their time. I don't think there's an interest in the House.”



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