Sunday, July 11, 2004

Riverfront casino still a sucker bet


Analysis

By Dan Horn
Enquirer staff writer

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READER POLL
Should Cincinnati allow casinos on the riverfront? Share your thoughts with us.
Cincinnati politicians are once again dreaming big about a casino boat on the city's riverfront.

They envision a grand complex of restaurants, hotel rooms and Las Vegas-style games that will draw thousands downtown.

And they see riches flowing into the city with every spin of the Roulette wheel.

But when it comes to legal gambling in Ohio, big dreams rarely come true.

State politics and wary voters mean that any effort to bring a casino to Cincinnati - or to any other Ohio city - is a long shot.

"We know from the past that Ohioans are very reluctant to support any form of legalized gambling," said Eric Rademacher, director of the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research, which conducts the Ohio Poll. "There's most likely going to be anywhere from a majority to a large majority of voters against the idea."

He said the odds have been stacked against pro-gambling forces for years, largely because of an ingrained, Midwest conservatism and a reluctance in Ohio's rural counties to support something many believe only benefits major cities.

Ohio voters have soundly rejected two casino initiatives in the past 14 years, each time with a 62 percent "No" vote.

Pro-gambling bills have fared no better in the state Legislature. And nearly every top state officeholder, including Gov. Bob Taft, opposes casino gambling.

Despite that history, Mayor Charlie Luken floated the idea again two weeks ago when he warned that Cincinnati risked losing millions in tax dollars to out-of-state casinos if Ohio didn't reconsider its opposition.

State Rep. Tyrone Yates, D-Cincinnati, quickly joined the crusade, vowing to introduce a pro-casino bill in the Legislature.

Cincinnati politicians, including Luken's father, Tom, have made similar pitches in the past. But the mayor said the urgency has never been greater.

That's because every state bordering Ohio, except Kentucky, now has casinos, video slot machines or other forms of gambling. Pennsylvania became the most recent state on that list last week when its Legislature signed off on video slots.

"I'm trying to get the facts out there and hope it becomes a political issue," Luken said.

"I don't want to wait until we have a casino on the Kentucky side of the river and everyone is scratching their heads wondering, 'How'd that happen?' "

Casinos a hard sell

Given Ohio's political landscape, the mayor's campaign could take some time.

The first obstacle is Taft, who would likely veto any pro-casino bill.

The Legislature would need a two-thirds majority to override the governor, and state officials say those votes aren't there.

That leaves pro-gambling forces with one realistic option: A constitutional amendment allowing casinos.

But changing the constitution is no easy task.

It requires 60 votes in the 99-member House, 20 votes in the 33-member Senate and the approval of a majority of Ohioans in a statewide election.

It's a hurdle pro-casino forces tried and failed to overcome in 1990 and 1996.

"We in the Legislature have been talking about it for years," said State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township.

"But the reality is that voters have twice turned down votes on free-standing casinos."

Seitz said he sees the benefits of casinos but doesn't think the Legislature or voters are ready to accept them yet.

A better option, he said, is his proposal to amend the constitution to allow video slot machines at Ohio's seven horseracing tracks.

The Senate already has approved it, but the measure has fallen three votes shy of the necessary 60 in the House.

Seitz now believes he has the votes he needs and wants to try again.

He'll have to hurry.

House members are off for the summer so a special session must be called before Aug. 4 - the deadline for getting the issue on the November ballot.

Seitz thinks voters will approve video slots because the machines would be permitted only at horse tracks, where gambling already is permitted.

But he says neither voters nor the Legislature is quite ready to endorse casinos.

"Many believe, kind of like me, let's try this out at the tracks and see how it goes before we talk about casinos," Seitz said.

"You have to walk before you can run."

Even if the Legislature did approve a casino initiative, Seitz said, there is not enough time to mount the aggressive and expensive statewide campaign required to win.

"It's not only a difficult sell in the Legislature," Rademacher said, "it's a difficult sell in the broader electorate."

Support may grow

But there are some encouraging signs for casino supporters.

They are convinced resistance is weakening as states like Indiana allow casinos in and prove that local governments can rake in millions in tax revenue without suffering the social ills - high crime, prostitution, drugs - that many opponents predict.

"Before the Indiana boats opened, the shtick was that it would be terrible, that it will be Sodom and Gomorrah," said State Sen. Lou Blessing, R-Cincinnati. "Now people are flocking to them."

Since many of those people are from Ohio, Blessing believes voters' attitudes toward casinos in their own state may be shifting.

He said recent polls commissioned by gambling supporters show a narrow majority still against casinos, but the gap is closing.

"I'm not sure how realistic casinos are right now," Blessing said. "But as competition increases (from other states), it might become more realistic."

He said the best argument for the pro-casino camp is economic: Gambling promises new tax revenue at a time when Ohio's budget gets tighter every year. Now, that revenue is going to Indiana and other states that offer legalized gambling.

"Ohioans have to understand that we are losing millions, millions and millions of dollars to neighboring states," Seitz said. "Let's stop the bleeding."

But opponents of casinos say resistance remains strong in Ohio.

They say a core group of voters will never support legalized gambling on moral and religious grounds, while another group is still convinced that the social problems gambling would bring far outweigh the good it can do for the state budget.

State Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, led the recent fight against video slot machines and will oppose any push for casino gambling.

"We'll continue to fight it," Jordan said.

"It's like a dark cloud that kind of drifts off over the horizon. And then the next thing you know, it's over your head threatening to rain again."

Not ready for ballot

While the die-hard opposition may always be there, Luken and Yates see a chance to win over other voters by portraying casinos as economic engines.

The key, they say, is how the new tax revenue is divvied up.

The most likely scenario is more money for college tuition or public schools.

But Seitz said none of that matters right now.

"There are a lot of legislators I could convince to vote yes for slots at tracks," he said.

"There are not a lot I could convince to put casinos on the ballot."

If his video slots proposal passes, Seitz said, a casino initiative might gather enough support to get on the ballot by 2006.

Then it would once again be up to voters.

Luken said he knew when he resurrected the casino idea that it would take time. He just hopes the Legislature moves sooner rather than later.

"I have been around long enough to know these things do not happen overnight," Luken said.

"I think the political will has to be there, and right now it is not."

E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com




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