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Gambling to benefit charity may reach all Ohio counties


Toledo's Hollywood Casino is scheduled to open May 29. Ohio casinos may have competition if a bill in the General Assembly allowing a card gaming room in the name of charity in every county passes.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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COLUMBUS — The menu of gambling options could be expanded again under proposed legislation to allow the creation of a government-sanctioned poker room in the name of charity in each of Ohio's 88 counties.

Currently, just Cuyahoga County has such a facility, but an amendment added to a House-passed casino/racetrack slots parlor bill awaiting a Senate vote would allow any county to designate a privately owned facility within its borders for charitable Texas Hold 'Em, blackjack, and other wagering card games.

These card rooms could not include slot machines or be located at a larger facility with slots, which would leave the casinos and so-called "racinos" out of the mix.

The language, tucked by a Senate committee into House Bill 386, could come to a full Senate vote as soon as next week.

"My guess is it would really cut into the revenue of the casinos, so it would obviously cut into the revenue of the state," said Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), the original bill's sponsor. "I'm not sure of the thinking. I'm going to ask the Senate what the purpose is. Maybe there's a good reason to do that. I have real concerns."

The bill is designed to write between the lines of the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2009 authorizing four Las Vegas-style casinos in Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati; the legislatively authorized installation of 17,500 slot machines at seven horse-racing tracks, and additional deals worked out between Gov. John Kasich and casino operators Penn National Gaming, Inc., and Rock Ohio Caesars.

"It's an issue of fairness," Senate President Tom Niehaus (R., New Richmond) said. "This has proven to be a successful program in Cuyahoga County, authorized by the county commissioners. … Many charities throughout the county have benefited. We want to extend that same opportunity to other counties."

Counties would not get a piece of the charitable gambling pie, but the owners of the leased private property used as card rooms could be dealt in.

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the governor opposes the provision.

Penn, owner of the Toledo and Columbus casinos, also has not taken a position on the charitable card room provision.

"It's clearly a significant expansion of gambling without a vote of the people, but I don't think we have a position from a business standpoint…," spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said. "This happened very quickly. We're more surprised by the way some of this is being done.

"What we and Rock are very rightly involved in, in terms of licensing, is absolutely very strict with very tight supervision and oversight by the state," he said. "When you look at this, the companies that could be hired to run card rooms have no licensing provision at all."

The language does require paid dealers at the poker, blackjack, and other card game tables to be licensed by the Ohio Casino Control Commission.

The bill, as it passed the House, loosened some restrictions on existing charitable gambling under the assumption that imminent competition from casinos and racetrack slots parlors would cut into their bottom lines.

The bill, for instance, would allow so-called charitable Las Vegas nights to continue later into the night, but Mr. Blessing had resisted having the bill become a lightning rod for an even more dramatic expansion of gaming.

While the bill has been under consideration in the General Assembly, the casino and Ohio Lottery commissions have worked along parallel tracks to adopt rules.

Rock's Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland is slated to open on May 14 while Penn's Hollywood Casino is expected to open its doors on the East Toledo riverfront on May 29.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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