It’s a safe bet there’s never been another year like it for Ohio’s gambling industry. As detailed in a three-day series by staff writers Rick Armon and Paula Schleis, the past 12 months have seen the opening of four casinos, the conversion of two of Ohio’s seven horse racing tracks into mini casinos with video lottery terminals and the growth of Internet cafes and sweepstakes parlors.
The rapid, haphazard expansion has left a host of unanswered questions to be resolved by four separate regulatory entities, the courts and the legislature. Among them are how much gambling should there be, where should it be located and what outlets should be shut down.
Already, there are signs that Ohio is oversaturated with gambling. Casinos are generating about half the revenue projected when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2009, and the money isn’t making up for budget cuts to schools and local governments. Revenue from traditional lottery games and charitable bingo is declining. Meanwhile, no one knows how the sweepstakes parlors are doing. They are regulated at the local level, if at all, evading a basic tenet in Ohio law, that money from gambling serve a public purpose, such as education or local government. Legislation is being considered to shut them down as Mike DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general, targets the storefront operators with charges of illegal gambling.
As it is, gambling in Ohio is controlled by the Ohio Casino Control Commission, the Ohio Lottery Commission (covering video lottery terminals), the Ohio Racing Commission ( horse racing) and the Ohio attorney general (charitable gaming). The structure is woefully ill-suited to the task of developing and implementing a coherent statewide gambling policy.
In the short run, the legislature must act quickly to shut down the hundreds of sweepstakes parlors across the state. Also, the legality of yet another gambling offshoot, electronic video raffle machines that have been in use since 2011 by veterans and fraternal organizations, must be resolved before it, too, gets out of control.
Legislators should then undertake an overhaul of the state’s gambling regulations and regulatory structure. Ideally, such an examination would have taken place before the casino amendment in 2009, or shortly thereafter. It makes little sense to maintain such a splintered approach when one form of gambling siphons money from another.
A parallel priority is to prepare adequately for what is expected to be a rapid growth in gambling addiction as more outlets compete for a limited amount of money. Without a strong state role, underfunded social service agencies will bear the brunt of yet another unfortunate consequence of Ohio’s gambling boom.