Thursday, September 25, 2003

Video slots urged again

By Jim Siegel
Gannett Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - A proposal to put video slot machines at Ohio racetracks has been resurrected, this time with money going to college scholarships.

Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, said the latest proposal would use the $222 million to $444 million in annual revenue to create a new scholarship program for the 6,000 students who finish in the top 5 percent of their graduating classes.

Additional scholarships, targeted toward lower-income families, also would be created, likely through a revamping of the Ohio Instructional Grant Program, Coughlin said. He estimates the average grant could be increased by 127 percent.

"If this goes through, college students are going to get significant financial aid for years to come," said Coughlin, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. "That speaks to some huge needs - affordability and keeping the best minds in Ohio."

The idea of placing slot machines at Ohio racetracks, including River Downs near Cincinnati and Lebanon Raceway in Warren County, has been submitted repeatedly for the past few years. Talks have broken down over disagreements about how to spend the profits and whether to put the issue on the ballot.

Coughlin said he thinks he finally has a plan most supporters can agree on.

Money not needed for scholarships would go to the Ohio School Facilities Commission to be used for school building construction. Coughlin said this would offset declining tobacco settlement money earmarked for the commission.

If the plan were to pass this year, the issue could be put before voters in March.

As a resolution, the plan needs three-fifths approval in the House and Senate. Coughlin said he hasn't counted votes yet, but others expect the measure is likely to at least get enough support in the Senate. The Senate may try to pass the resolution when it returns to session in mid-October.

In the House, Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, has voiced opposition to using video slot machine revenue to create new programs.

The House approved slot machines in its version of the budget in May, but revenues were meant to replace the 1-cent sales tax increase. The Senate later pulled slots out of the budget plan.

Dwight Crum, spokesman for Householder, was hesitant to talk about the latest proposal until a final version at least passes out of committee.

He said the speaker will consider video slot machines if the revenue goes to solve a problem, not just "gambling for the sake of gambling."

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