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Published: Tuesday, 7/7/2009

Top Ohio Senate Republican calls for slot ballot vote


COLUMBUS The Republican president of the Ohio Senate on Tuesday urged Gov. Ted Strickland to put the question of whether Ohio should embrace slot machines to voters.

In a letter, Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) called for a Nov. 3 ballot issue to approve a constitutional amendment allowing seven slots parlors in the state, arguing that s the surest way to avoid litigation.

We know that litigation is a certainty should your proposal be enacted, subjecting the state to legal wrangling and potentially tying up funding for schools in the courts, he wrote. A voter-approved constitutional amendment is not subject to such legal challenges.

The licenses for those parlors would be competitively bid under Mr. Harris s proposal, meaning Toledo s Raceway Park and six other horse-racing tracks would not be guaranteed slot machines as they would under Mr. Strickland s proposal.

The current (video lottery terminal) proposal picks winners and losers and creates a gambling monopoly for a handful of predetermined property owners, Mr. Harris wrote.

We think that s wrong. A constitutional amendment could be constructed to ensure a fair, open, and competitive process for distributing licenses that would get the best deal for the taxpayers of Ohio.

A copy of the letter was sent to House Speaker Armond Budish (D., Beachwoood), with whom Mr. Harris was scheduled to meet later on Tuesday. Budish spokesman Keary McCarthy said the speaker had just received Mr. Harris s letter and had not made his opinion of the proposal known.

It is our intent to find common ground and to continue the dialogue (in the meeting), Mr. McCarthy said.

On Monday, Mr. Strickland flatly rejected the idea of putting the question on the ballot and temporarily funding K-12 education by other means until the will of the voters is known.

The governor less than a month ago opposed the idea of using slots to balance the budget, let alone by bypassing a vote of the people. But faced with a gaping $3.2 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years, he has since urged the General Assembly to directly approve such a plan to generate $933 million that could be applied against the budget gap.

The uncertainty of a ballot issue would place that funding at risk and, even if approved, could delay the progress of the plan for four months, he said.

Mr. Strickland s proposal expects to raise the money from profits on the state-run machines as well as one-time $65 million license fees that would be paid by each track.

The legislature could vote to directly place the question on the ballot with a three-fifths majority vote in each chamber. As a joint resolution, it would bypass the governor s desk, although the governor and lawmakers would still likely have to deal with the revenue side of the equation in the separate two-year budget.

Any slots question on the ballot would likely compete with a separate proposal being pushed by casino interests to authorize four Las Vegas-style casinos, complete with table games and slot machines, at specific locations in Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

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