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Published: Thursday, 7/22/2010

Slots: a bad bet

When Gov. Ted Strickland reversed his long-standing opposition to an expansion of legal gambling, proposing to place electronic slot machines at Ohio's seven horse racing tracks, it became evident that the governor's values are flexible. Slots, defeated once, are back.

Mr. Strickland's first attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of gamblers ran afoul of the Ohio Supreme Court, which said the slots plan needed to be approved by voters in a referendum. Last month, LetOhioVote.org dropped its campaign to place the issue on the November ballot, rather than identify its funding sources.

Now the governor is renewing his quest for a quick fix for the potential $8 billion hole in the state's next biennial budget, which doesn't involve raising taxes or slashing already cut-to-the-bone programs and services.

Allan Krulak, chairman of the Ohio Lottery, which scrapped Mr. Strickland's original idea and voted to seek court approval of the governor's modified plan, says they're doing it for the kids. "The more money we can make," he says, "the more we can send to the schools."

Not exactly. It's true that the Ohio Constitution requires all lottery profits to go to support public schools. But even Governor Strickland admits that it's a shell game in which money from slot machines will free other money that would have been spent on education to shore up the rest of the state budget.

The plan still appears to be on shaky constitutional ground, and at least one group - Ohio Roundtable - has promised to sue. No euphemism - such as calling the machines "video lottery terminals" - can change the fact that Mr. Strickland is proposing casinos in all but name.

And with four real casinos, including one in Toledo, set to begin opening in 2012, race-track slot machines will raise only a fraction of the previous estimate of $933 million over two years. It is unclear why Penn National Gaming, which is developing casinos in Toledo and Columbus and also owns the horse racing tracks in both cities, would want to compete against itself for gambling dollars.

Gambling is an addictive activity that ruins many lives. Slot machines, with their bright lights, ease of play, and high payout rates, are among the most addictive games of chance.

In a special report this month, the Economist magazine cited research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology anthropology professor Natasha Dow Schull, who concluded that 90 percent of people who attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Las Vegas played nothing but slot machines.

Putting thousands of one-armed bandits at horse racing tracks likely will increase gambling addiction and destroy more lives, careers, and families. Governor Strickland is evidently OK with that. But it's a gamble we're not inclined to take.

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