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Published: Saturday, 5/13/2006

Sides trade fire in Ohio casino war

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Casino War 2006 is officially under way.

U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio), Attorney General Jim Petro, Auditor Betty Montgomery, and other opponents of expanded gambling in Ohio yesterday launched their countercampaign.

They said they will use knowledge to fight what they estimate will be a $12 million to $15 million campaign by racetracks and casino operators to woo voters to approve slot machines now and open the door for casino-style table games later.

"Do not be fooled," said Ms. Montgomery. "Learn and Earn's latest proposal, the one that seems to be the consensus proposal of differing gambling interests, is not an economic development tool.

"None of the revenue goes to state coffers. None addresses Ohio's budget problems. Certainly, none will give tax reductions to the citizens of the state of Ohio."

A coalition of Ohio's seven racetracks and Cleveland developers, Learn and Earn is circulating petitions for a Nov. 7 ballot issue.

The proposal calls for up to 3,500 slot machines at each track plus two specific sites in downtown Cleveland. Cuyahoga County voters could decide later whether they want to add casino-style table games to the local mix.

Thirty-two percent of the gross revenue from slot machines and possible table games would go toward college scholarships for high-performing high school graduates. Another 13 percent would be divided among local governments for economic development projects, larger horse-racing purses, and gambling addiction programs.

"The remaining 55 percent, which is really a remarkable figure, would be profit for facility owners, and that 55 percent would go into the pockets of the owners tax-free. Permanently," said Ms. Montgomery. "Enough is enough."

But David Hopcraft, consultant for the casino coalition, countered that the slice off the top for scholarships and other purposes amounts to a 45 percent tax.

"They keep using their scare tactics," he said. "But Indiana isn't a horrible place to live. Michigan isn't a horrible place to live. These are the people who control our government. Where's their idea?"

Learn and Earn must gather nearly 324,000 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot, and it may have competition.

Cincinnati, angry that its downtown casino was negotiated away to bring Toledo's Raceway Park owner Penn National Gaming on board with Learn and Earn, is pursuing its own ballot issue. Penn National owns a casino at Lawrenceburg, Ind., that draws heavily from the Cincinnati market.

Cincinnati's plan would return it to the casino mix, allow voters in Lucas and any other counties with a slots parlor to later authorize casino-style table games, and up the ante to 32 percent of the take for college scholarships.

"We are moving forward with Learn and Earn no matter what anyone else does," said Penn National spokesman Andy Bowers. "[Cincinnati's plan] is pretty far behind at this point, and it would be extremely difficult for it to get the 323,000 valid signatures. If I were a betting man, I would bet we'll be the only one on the ballot."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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