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Published: Wednesday, 7/1/2009

Thursday hearing set in Columbus on slot machine proposal

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - The dam that Senate Republicans had erected in that chamber against a vote on slot machines appeared to develop a small leak Wednesday.

Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) agreed to hold public hearings beginning Thursday on Gov Ted Strickland's proposal to bring slot machines to Toledo's Raceway Park and six other horse-racing tracks to prevent even deeper budget cuts.

"I continue to believe that the voters of Ohio should have the say,'' said Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland). "The governor demands that legislators vote to allow him to expand gambling. How can the Governor expect anyone to support him if we don't even know what his plan actually is?''

Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) will chair the five-member special task force. It remains to be seen how far the hearings would go considering that even Mr. Strickland has said many of the details on exactly how the plan would operate have yet to be worked out.

The slots issue is largely the last unresolved hurdle of budget negotiations which have already carried beyond Tuesday's end of the fiscal year. The House was poised Wednesday to pass a second, week-long interim budget to allow state government to make its payroll and debt payments through July 14 while talks continue.

Mr. Harris said he wants to know how the governor concluded that up to 12,200 slot machines at the racetracks would generate $933 million in profits and licensing fees over the next two years and whether the state could see more money if it sought competitive bids for the licenses rather than give the racetracks a monopoly.

"Still missing from this debate are the details," Mr. Harris said. "Up until 11 days ago, the governor and I shared the same concerns about expanded gambling in Ohio.''

Mr. Strickland, a Democrat, reversed his long-held position that slot machines were not a good idea for Ohio and ultimately presented his own plan as a way to reducing what could have been $3.2 billion in budget cuts to $2.4 billion.

"I've done it because we have the most serious budget circumstances in 70 or more years. I think that's relevant,'' he said Monday. "I've put forward a framework to cut billions of dollars out of state services.

"So I was faced with certain options-additional cuts, which I think would be intolerable; raising taxes, which I have said would be unwise for our state and could make our recession deeper and last longer, or the video lottery terminal proposal,'' Mr. Strickland said.

Absent a ballot vote, Mr. Harris has challenged the governor to implement his slots proposal as an extension of the Ohio Lottery via executive order just as he did last year when he introduced electronic Keno to bars and restaurants.



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