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Published: Friday, 6/4/2010

Ohio legislators miss deadline but work into morning to set casino rules

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Lawmakers missed their deadline but continued to work into the wee hours of Friday morning on rules to guide Ohio as it jumps head-first into Las Vegas-style casino gambling.

The constitutional amendment passed by voters last fall authorized four casinos and gave the General Assembly six months to make it work. But there is no penalty for missing the deadline.

In a flurry of activity, bills moved between the House and Senate as lawmakers hoped to wrap up business and recess for the summer.

Lawmakers did appear to reach agreement on a bill to lower the local property tax burden for new wind farms, solar fields, and other alternative electricity generation in hopes of making Ohio more competitive for green jobs. But they failed to reach a deal on a proposed constitutional amendment to overhaul the process of redrawing legislative districts every 10 years to adjust for population.

After repeatedly rejecting casino gambling over two decades, voters agreed in November to roll the dice with one 24-hour casino each in Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Toledo's casino is slated for the banks of the Maumee River abutting I-75 and Rossford.

A deal had reportedly been worked out, but a House-Senate conference committee charged with hammering out a compromise had still not met as of 1 a.m.

Senate Republicans had insisted that the casino bill contain no appropriations, since that would trigger Gov. Ted Strickland's line-item veto authority to strike specific language. The compromise was for lawmakers to instead set aside $100 million — half of the total $200 million expected from casino licensing fees — for job-training programs for urban and rural areas and a state internship program in a separate bill.

House Democrats were also expected to disappoint members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who have insisted that the law include mandates pertaining to minority hiring and contracting by the casinos. Senate President Bill Harris (R., Ashland) had insisted that was a nonstarter with his chamber.

As of Friday night, the proposal would require slot machines to pay out in prizes at least 85 percent of what they take in. It included no provision to deal racetracks into the mix with their own slot machines or bars and restaurants with slots-like, skilled-based games.

As for the alternative and renewable energy bill, the House voted 91-7 early Friday morning to approve it, and the Senate was expected to follow.

If county commissioners opt in by declaring energy enterprise zones, new utility-scale alternative energy projects would substitute flat payments to local governments in lieu of taxes they currently face on real estate, machinery, and equipment. For solar fields, the payment would be $7,000 per megawatt of capacity.

For wind, biomass, cleaner coal, advanced nuclear and other approved projects, the rate would be tied to the percentage of Ohioans employed by the project as judged by the construction phase. Those annual rates would range from $6,000 per megawatt if 75 percent or more of construction jobs go to Ohioans to $8,000 for those with 50 to 59 percent. Projects employing fewer Ohioans would be ineligible for the alternate lower tax.

The compromise moved despite opposition from teacher unions, townships, and school administrators.

Jack Shaner, of the Ohio Environmental Council, noted other states like Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois have left Ohio in the dust in terms of wind farm development. Under the current tax structure, a wind project in Ohio could pay $40,000 per megawatt, 10 times that charged in Pennsylvania.

“We are way out of whack,'' Mr. Shaner said.

In other legislative action:

w The Senate sent to the governor a watered-down version of a bill to address childhood obesity and to push healthier food options in schools.

w The House unanimously approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Buehrer (R., Delta) to loosen regulations on traditional phone companies to make them more competitive with their wireless brethren and cable. The Senate voted 31-1 to send it on to Mr. Strickland.

w The Senate approved House Bill 338 which, among many other things, would create a Putnam County Municipal Court in Ottawa with one full-time judge as of 2011 to replace the current county court of two part-time judges. The bill headed back to the House for agreement.



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