Strickland to authorize racetrack slots

By JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent COLUMBUS
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

By JULIE CARR SMYTH

AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland will authorize racetrack slots by executive order and lawmakers will provide him legal protection under a stalemate-ending budget compromise struck Friday.

The order is the linchpin of a compromise with Senate Republicans, who have in turn agreed to include language in the $54 billion, two-year state budget that clarifies the state gambling law allows the lottery to include slots-like video lottery terminals.

David Zanotti, president of the anti-gambling Ohio Roundtable, said his group will follow through with threats to sue over the slots move.

''Last time I checked, he was elected governor, not king,'' Zanotti said. ''It'll be interesting if the governor has the courage to take this stand in court and explain to the people of Ohio how in 1973 their vote (in favor of the Ohio Lottery) authorized casino-style gambling in racetracks in this state. I'm anxious to hear his testimony in court.''

House Speaker Armond Budish, a Beachwood Democrat, announced Friday afternoon that the compromise had been reached among the Democrat-led House, Republican-led Senate and Strickland.

The three had been locked in an impasse since the governor announced June 19 that he had changed his stance on lottery-run slots and would rely on them to help balance the budget.

Budish stressed that the deal will allow Ohio to balance its budget, which has suffered a series of revenue blows as it has moved through the Legislature this spring.

''The national economic downturn has impacted state budgets all across the country. Ohio faced similar challenges, but we were able to provide a balanced budget that reduces spending, shrinks the size of government, protects vital services for our most vulnerable citizens, and prioritizes job creation to help move Ohio forward,'' Budish said in a statement.

Strickland had insisted that some action by the Legislature is required in connection with the slots plan because Ohio law prohibits ''schemes of chance,'' which include slots and the governor's authority to expand the lottery with a non-ticketed game is legally tenuous.

He said in a statement Friday that the budget ''rightly prioritizes education as the foundation of Ohio's economic revival, reduces state government spending while minimizing the impact on critical health and safety services, and does not raise taxes on Ohioans or Ohio businesses struggling through this recession.''

Senate President Bill Harris had argued that Strickland either should use his executive authority to add slots to the Ohio Lottery or take the question to the ballot. Ohio voters have repeatedly rejected efforts to expand gambling.

The logjam made the state miss its June 30 budget deadline for the first time in 18 years. The second of two seven-day interim budgets expires Tuesday.

Harris said he believes the budget can be finalized Monday. He said language he has agreed to will acknowledge the governor's authority to expand the state lottery to include games like VLTs.

No matter Strickland's haste in signing the executive order, a third temporary budget will probably be needed to allow enough time to draft changes to the voluminous final budget bill. A budget conference committee is scheduled to resume its public meetings Monday, said Budish spokesman Keary McCarthy.

The governor's executive order will contain his original slots proposal, which allows the Ohio Lottery to operate 2,500 VLTs at each of Ohio's seven horse-racing tracks. It will not include a provision that would have allowed track owners to recoup their investments if voters pass a fall ballot issue legalizing casinos.

State Sen. Mark Wagoner, a Republican who chaired the special committee investigating the slots proposal, said he had hoped for a different solution.

''My preference would have been to let the voters of Ohio decide this question,'' he said. ''But I recognize that in any negotiation you don't always get what you want. There's always give and take.''

Tensions began to cool Thursday as growing frustration was expressed by those left in limbo as a result of the budget impasse, including nursing home operators, county welfare agencies, food banks and school districts.

Columbus City Schools Superintendent Gene Harris, who oversees the state's largest public school district, urged lawmakers in a public plea Thursday to resolve their differences or risk hurting kids.

She said the district has time-sensitive plans in place for improving education that have been put on hold because of the budget uncertainty.

''Continuing (budget) resolutions inhibit planning for the upcoming school year and in many ways close a window of opportunity for our students, causing irreparable disruption to the educational process,'' she said.

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