By Leo Shane III
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - Senate officials took a big step Tuesday toward asking voters to put video slot machines at Ohio's racetracks, but one-time supporter House Speaker Larry Householder said he will not back the latest version of the plan.
The plan that passed a Senate committee Tuesday night would earmark $500 million in revenue from slot machines for new college scholarship programs and vocational school building construction.
Voters would decide whether to authorize the machines in the March 2004 primary election. The bill is expected to be up for a vote before the full Senate later today.
Bill sponsor Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, called the legislation an opportunity to help the state's racing industry and secure the state's future by helping young Ohioans get a college degree.
But Householder, R-Glenford, said he prefers using slot machine profits to reduce the 1-cent sales tax hike approved in June to balance the budget.
"We're not trying to find a way to put video lottery terminals at the racetracks; we're trying to find a way to solve Ohio's budget problems," he said of the House. "That has been our position. Creating new programs is not a way to solve those problems."
The Senate, he said, "is desperately trying to find a way to put VLTs at the racetracks."
Householder said he has not discussed the proposal with his GOP caucus, but doubts members would support the current Senate plan. He is confident members would approve a proposal dealing with repealing the sales tax.
In April, 43 House Republicans and 23 Democrats backed a sales tax/slots plan.
House Minority Leader Chris Redfern, D-Catawba Island, said there was still "significant support" among Democrats for the Senate's slots plan. He said Ohio should capture some of the gambling revenue currently being spent at out-of-state venues.
"But I'm quite certain this would fail if the dollars aren't earmarked to specific areas," he said. "And tuition costs often times are considered like taxes as well for working families. Tuition rates have never been higher."
Redfern challenged Householder not to shoot down the proposal before discussing it with the Democrats.
"I think the majority of Ohioans would like a say on this issue," he said.
The Senate plan would create both achievement and needs-based scholarships. The first, to be called the Ohio Scholarship, would award annual grants of $5,900 to the top 10 percent of high school seniors - 12,500 students.
The needs-based program would provide financial aid to about 12,000 low-income students who meet certain achievement standards, to be set by the Board of Regents.
Coughlin said if revenue from slots is below estimates, the scholarship amounts would be scaled back to keep the state from absorbing new debt.
Sen. Larry Mumper, R-Marion, was the only committee member to vote against putting the issue on the ballot, saying he has concerns about creating new programs during difficult economic times.
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