Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Slots at tracks a sucker's bet

Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
Casino ads show distinguished "007" look-alikes playing roulette with glamorous women in evening gowns draped on their arms, sipping champagne. But 75 percent of casino income comes from slots - which are more like addictive "crack" than champagne.

Ohio has a plan to put 15,000 slots in seven racetracks, including Cincinnati and Lebanon. But don't call them slots. Lawmakers prefer VLTs - "video lottery terminals." They don't call the racetracks "casinos," either, but that's what they will be.

Critics say it's a sucker's bet.

In Illinois, gambling high-roller Harrah's recently bid $520 million, just for a license to open a casino in Waukegan, Ill. In Ohio, all seven racetracks would pay $120,000 total for licenses.

"We're giving a huge windfall to seven guys," said Ohio Sen. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. "They say they want to keep the money in Ohio, but some of the track owners are out-of-state interests."

Jordan says any casino gambling is a big mistake, and points out that voters have rejected it twice, in 1990 and 1996. "When you bring it into the community, you get a host of problems. Violence, domestic violence, crime, addictive behaviors."

But Ohio Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, insists slots are inevitable, so Ohio should cut the best deal it can. He says his ballot proposal, giving the state 50 percent of revenues after winnings are paid, "is the highest percentage of any state that allows slots at racetracks."

But track owners still keep nearly 37.5 percent of hundreds of millions in revenues. No wonder they're ready to spend $10 million on a statewide campaign if racetrack slots get on the ballot this fall, Seitz said.

A model slots plan proposed by Lou Blessing, R-Cincinnati, would have taxpayers buy and replace the slot machines, at about $2,400 each. Blessing said the details may change, but the deal is a good one.

Slots backers say it's for the children: College scholarships and Head Start-style programs. It's the same story that oversold the Lottery "to pay for education."

They'll argue that the state desperately needs the money. Ohio is facing a $3.8 billion deficit in the next two-year budget, Seitz said. But none of the $600 million from slots would be used for that. It's all spending.

Seitz says he wanted to use at least half the slots income to cut taxes. But it wouldn't fly politically. Lawmakers think "education" is the worm on the hook to get voters to bite.

The pro-gambling crowd says slots will save horseracing in Ohio. About 12 percent of the profits would go to racing purses. But Jordan predicts the tracks will turn into big casinos, "with an old gray mare on the back of the lot."

Blessing and Seitz scoff at Indian land claims on Ohio by the Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma. The Shawnees have prepared a claim on more than 1 million acres that they say were illegally taken in the late 1700s, including the Symmes Purchase in Cincinnati. The tribe wants to make a deal for land elsewhere to open seven resort/casinos.

"I would bet a lot of money against that ever happening," Blessing said, because the land was sold, not stolen. "I wish honestly we didn't have any boats or casinos surrounding Ohio and we wouldn't have to be doing any of this. But they're killing us and we have to do something."

He has a point.

But as parents know, "everybody's doing it" is a lame excuse to sponsor gambling crack houses to feed Ohio's champagne spending.


E-mail pbronson@enquirer.com or call 768-8301.

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