With casinos and video lottery terminals set to expand rapidly across Ohio, a much-debated bill rewriting the state’s gambling laws finally cleared the legislature last week. Despite its comprehensive scope, the bill will not be the final word on Ohio’s growing attachment to wagering of various types. More work must done, and soon, to regulate fully the gambling outlets.
The bill does help soften the impact of widepread gambling on communities and problem gamblers. The legislature added language giving communities with so-called racinos, horse race tracks featuring video lottery terminals, $1 million each for two years. (Among those in line is Northfield in Summit County.) The money, from a casino settlement fund, would be used for infrastructure and discretionary purposes, likely law enforcement. The bill also allows the Ohio Lottery to use up to 1 percent of VLT commissions paid to the tracks for problem-gambling and related addiction services.
Still, questions remained about future funding for local communities with racinos (Columbus was exempted; it will get local funding from a casino). After the first two years, a memo of understanding among the governor, horse owners and racetracks would outline a continuing source of $500,000 a year. In the House, Ron Amstutz, a Wooster Republican who heads the Finance Committee, wisely raised questions about diverting lottery funds without first determining the net profits that go to schools. He noted the state constitution calls for all lottery proceeds to go to schools. As it is, voters have long used the lottery as an excuse to vote against school levies. Siphoning lottery funds for other purposes would only make matters worse.
Two other difficult matters were also left for later: what to do about charity card rooms and sweepstakes parlors, where patrons purchase phone cards or Internet time to play sweepstakes. Both will be dealt with in a separate bill. Thankfully, the gambling bill did slap a moratorium on new sweepstakes parlors, now regulated at the local level, if at all. The move was needed to stop the out-of-control growth of the parlors.
The efforts to control card rooms and sweepstakes parlors, as well as deal with the impact of casinos and racinos, serve as a reminder that the expansion of gambling comes at a high price.