Slot machine initiative goes to court

Brittany Moseley

Governor Ted Strickland’s proposal to incorporate slot machines at Ohio’s seven racetracks went to the Ohio Supreme Court Sept. 2. Let Ohio Vote, a ballot issue committee group, challenged Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. The initiative was developed to address a $3.2 billion budget shortfall.

Carlo LaParo, spokesperson for Let Ohio Vote, said the organization is against the initiative because it denies people the right to referendum, which allows citizens to vote on the proposal. Amanda Wurst, Strickland’s press secretary, said the video lottery terminals aren’t subject to the referendum process because they are part of an appropriation law, and, therefore, constitutionally exempted from referendum.

“If the court finds the law permitting VLT implementation is subject to referendum, it will set a precedent that all appropriation laws – for example, the nursing home franchise fees – will also be subject to referendum,” Wurst said in an e-mail. “That will inject chaos into the legislature’s ability to do the job legislators are elected to do, which is pass laws that provide revenue to the state to maintain a balanced budget.”

If the court rules in favor of Brunner, the slot machines are expected to be at racetracks by next May. For Ohio’s racetracks, the relief can’t come soon enough.

Thistledown Race Track, located in Cleveland, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May. Bob Roberts, publicity director for the track, said Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Indiana have incorporated video lottery terminals at their racetracks, taking business away from Ohio. Not only would the machines help create jobs, Roberts said they will save jobs.

All the profits from the machines will go to Ohio schools. They are expected to raise $933 million over two years. Wurst said the implementation of the terminals will fill a budget gap that is a result of the national recession, instead of raising taxes on Ohioans.

Although he isn’t against the slot machines, LaParo doesn’t approve of the government’s motives.

“I think they just need the money,” he said. “They saw it as a way to solve their budget predicament and revenue shortfalls. That’s understandable but you can’t ignore the constitution. You can’t take away the people’s right to referendum simply because you want.”

If Let Ohio Vote passes, the proposal will be on the ballot next November, LaParo said. Although there is no date set for a court decision, steps to implement the video lottery terminals will continue. The racetracks are funding the terminals themselves. This will cost each track $65 million. The first installment of $13 million was due Sept. 15.

John Engelhardt, director of publicity at River Downs Race Track in Cincinnati, said each track is mandated to do $80 million in renovations to accommodate for the machines. If the court hasn’t come to a decision by then, Roberts isn’t sure what will happen.

With both sides sure of their chances of winning, it’s unclear which way the court will lean. Either way, Roberts and Engelhardt are hopeful.

“I pray (the Supreme Court) has the wisdom to see the benefits of it,” Engelhardt said.

“You save jobs. You create jobs,” Roberts said. “I think it’s a no lose situation.”

Contact public affairs reporter Brittany Moseley at [email protected]