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Published: Tuesday, 4/14/2009

Casino backers get OK to start signature drive

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - A state panel gave backers of proposed casinos in Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati the green light Monday to begin circulating petitions despite questions over linking future Ohio gambling to what happens in surrounding states.

By a 4-1 vote, the Ohio Ballot Board determined that the proposed constitutional amendment should appear on the ballot as a single question.

This was the last hurdle that Penn National Gaming, owner of Toledo's Raceway Park, and Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, had to clear before asking registered voters to sign petitions to put a third gambling question on the ballot in four years.

Voters would be asked to amend the Ohio Constitution to allow Las Vegas-style casinos at four specific sites. The Toledo site would be 44 acres of reclaimed former industrial land along the Maumee River near I-75 and abutting Rossford.

The sole holdout was Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who questioned whether a provision tying future games in Ohio to what is offered in Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia was a significant enough constitutional change to warrant a separate question.

Under the proposed amendment, each of the four casinos would be authorized to offer whatever slot machine or table game is available in any of those three states. If one of those states adds to its offerings, Ohio's casinos could adjust accordingly.

"This one is bothering me somewhat," she said. "It actually requires even what's in the constitution to be affected by what four other states do by whichever method they may do it, whether it's constitutional or legislative."

State Sen. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta), also a board member, said he also didn't like that provision, but he supported framing the issue to voters on Nov. 3 in one comprehensive question.

"For me personally it's a very poor piece of public policy," he said. "That will live or die in front of the voters. Although I have concerns about it from a policy perspective, to me it doesn't tip the balance away from the single ballot initiative that is proposed."

The backers of the amendment have about 2 1/2 months to gather and file at least 402,275 valid signatures to make the ballot. They will then invest millions to persuade voters they've found the right formula, hitting Ohio's four biggest cities and divvying up proceeds from a 33 percent tax on wagers and one-time licensing fees of $50 million for each casino. The bulk of the money would go to counties, schools, and job-training programs.

"Our proposal will bring first-class casino developments to the downtown areas of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Toledo," said Charlie Luken, former Cincinnati mayor and chairman of the Ohio Jobs and Growth Committee behind the constitutional amendment.

"It will create $1 billion in private investment, 20,000 Ohio jobs, and at least $600 million every year in tax revenues for Ohio's cities, counties, and school districts," he said.

Columbus attorney Anne Marie Sferra, representing an unnamed racetrack owner opposing the plan, had argued that the proposed constitutional amendment should have been sliced as many as five ways, dealing separately with, among other issues, legalizing the casinos, taxing those casinos, and deciding specifically which parcel of land would be used for a casino.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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