By Gregory Korte
Enquirer staff writer
Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken said he's counted the Hamilton County license plates in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and they added up to this conclusion: Cincinnati needs casino gambling on the riverfront.
Responding to reports Tuesday that Lawrenceburg's Argosy casino plans to expand, Luken called on Ohio's governor and state legislators to put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow casino gambling in big cities.
"Obviously, what is happening at Argosy should be enough to make everyone scratch their head and say, 'Why aren't we getting some of this?' " said Luken.
"My nightmare is that I'm going to wake up one morning and see casinos on the Ohio River, but they're on the Kentucky side looking at our skyline."
The debate has moved beyond the moral issue of gambling, Luken said. It's now an economic one.
Luken's proposal is this: Voters would approve a state constitutional amendment to allow casinos in Ohio's major cities.
Each city could still decide for itself - perhaps by referendum - whether casino gambling belongs there.
Details of how the tax revenue would be split among city, county, school district and state governments would still need to be worked out, but Luken said that's not the point.
In fact, he pledges to return the local share of tax proceeds to homeowners in the form of a property tax break.
"The tax revenue component of this is not as important to me as the how-do-we-make-the-city-interesting department," he said. "Yeah, I'd like to get some tax money from it. But more importantly, I'm interested in the attraction that will bring people downtown, create jobs and help the economy."
In the short term, Luken's entry into the debate isn't likely to change the political atmosphere in Columbus.
State Rep. William Seitz, R-Green Township, is pushing a ballot measure that would allow video lottery terminals at Ohio's seven horse tracks, including River Downs in Anderson Township and the Lebanon Raceway. The Ohio House killed that proposal, but there's a motion to reconsider pending.
"My belief is that because voters have turned down standalone casinos twice in the last 15 years or so, we have to walk before we can run," Seitz said. "I'm not saying I'm against what Charlie is proposing. Deep in my heart, I think I could support it."
But rural lawmakers more likely to support Ohio's horse industry may draw the line at casino-style gambling, Seitz said. Opposition to gambling on moral grounds - even from Gov. Bob Taft and Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, both Republicans - is dying hard.
"I can't tell you how many people tell me daily we need a casino on the riverfront in Cincinnati. And these are God-fearing people telling me this, not guys wearing fedoras," Seitz said.
City Council has consistently opposed gambling, mirroring city voters who rejected previous ballot measures by 2-1 ratios.
In 1996, the last time a gambling amendment went before voters, a unanimous City Council even went so far as to rezone the riverfront the week before the vote to prohibit casinos. The action was moot, as the issue got just 38 percent of the vote.
In fact, it was Luken's father, former Rep. Thomas A. Luken, who was the last member of City Council to champion casino gambling - during his encore council term in 1994.
The incumbent mayor said he's agreed with his dad all along.
"I do think the pendulum is swinging," Charlie Luken said.
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