Gov. Strickland’s Slots Proposal Has Supporters, Opponents

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A coalition of powerful business groups has thrown its support behind Gov. Ted Strickland’s embattled plan to expand gambling to balance the state budget. Restaurant owners, grocers and beer and wine wholesalers joined the Harness Horsemen’s Association on Thursday to back Strickland’s plan to allow slot machines at Ohio’s seven horse racing tracks.

At Scioto Downs just south of Columbus horse racing has been a tradition for a half century. Scioto Downs features harness racing while a few miles away, thoroughbreds race at Beulah Park. If Governor Strickland’s slot machine proposal comes to pass, both racecourses will be home to thousands of electronic slot machines that are sure to lure gamblers. Louise Foster, Butch Everhart and Kenny Penwell support Strickland’s slot machine idea

“Oh well, I’m a born gambler. He needs to find a way to bring more money into this state instead of the money going across the border into Indiana and West Virginia.”

“Well I think the slots should have been in here years ago if you’re going to gamble you’re going to gamble.”

“I think it’s a good thing. We need the money for the economy – for the jobs or whatever.”

But speculating on slot machines at Ohio race tracks is a little early says the public relations manager for Scioto Downs. Dean Hoffman says it’s putting the cart before the horse.

“In the horse racing business you don’t celebrate until you hit the finish line and we’re certainly not at the finish line yet,” Hoffman says. “I think it’s a mistake to think it’s a done deal because I think negotiations on a lot of details are still taking place in the statehouse.”

It’s still unclear just how much money slots will generate for the state. Some estimates put the amount at around 400 million dollars a year by 2011. Hoffman says slots would rescue a dying industry. Ohio, he says, is sandwiched between two states that have so-called “racinos,” horse racing tracks that also offer slot machine gaming.

“I’ve joked that half of our horsemen are going east to Pennsylvania and the other half are going west to Indiana in [search] of better racing opportunities,” Hoffman says. “So it’s the difference probably between ultimately life and death.”

Pennsylvania approved slot machines at race tracks several years ago and thanks to the revenue they generate, the horse racing industry is once again thriving says Robert Hoffa, president of the Pennsylvania Equine Council.

“The purses have gone up substantially. You’re seeing more and more breeding farms coming to Pennsylvania so you’re getting the land sales you’re getting the construction work. It has increased the quality and caliber of the horses as well. It has really had an effect on the economy. As far as the racing industry it’s done wonders,” Hoffa says.

But there’s opposition to the governor’s plan. Rob Walgate, a spokesman for the Ohio Roundtable, says Ohioans have voted time and again against more gambling in the state.

“Ohioans have spoken four times on this issue, they say they don’t want expanded gambling, they don’t want slot machines across the state of Ohio but it seems that the governor has ignored their request and is cramming them down the throats of Ohioans,” Walgate says.

Walgate says he doubts the financial benefit of slot machines will ever be realized especially during these tough economic times.

“Everywhere we turn, gambling is on the decline. It’s spiraling downward; it’s out of control, racing toward the bottom. And Ohio, in the last two attempts to expand gambling – both the Mega Millions and Keno – haven’t come close to hitting revenue projections. So why should this time around be any different?”

The state racing commission says more than 12,000 jobs depend on the Ohio horse racing industry. Its annual economic impact they say is $460 million.

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