Big Bang for Buckeye State
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Facing a 10 percent state unemployment rate, Ohio voters appeared headed Tuesday toward reversing their two-decades-old opposition to gambling by passing a referendum on casinos that promised thousands of new jobs.
Unofficial returns showed 53 percent support for the casino proposal with 85 percent of the precincts reporting.
If the measure passed, Ohio would become the 39th state to legalize casinos and would join Indiana and three other neighboring casino states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The constitutional amendment to allow casinos in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo was the state’s top issue and most divisive election day topic, drawing keen attention as well in Kentucky and Indiana.
Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky, watched the returns on Cincinnati television. He said passage of the referendum wouldn’t be surprising.
“I think public opinion has shifted in Ohio like it has in Kentucky,” Elliston said. He said people are tired of seeing their gambling dollars going to roads and schools in Indiana and West Virginia, and the casinos promise jobs that few other private firms can match in the current economy.
Backers said Ohio’s passage could produce 40,000 full-time and part-time jobs; critics, however, were dubious.
Gaming experts said Ohio casinos would likely cut into Southeastern Indiana’s gambling market considerably while having a more targeted impact on Kentucky’s horse track gambling.
One study estimated that Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind., Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, Ind., and Belterra Casino near Vevay, Ind., would lose 38 percent of their traffic and $260million in wagering revenue with the opening of casinos in Cincinnati and Columbus.
Those losses — combined with a smaller hit to the new Hoosier Park casino at the racetrack in Anderson, Ind. — could cut gambling tax revenue in Indiana by $100million.
In Kentucky, Turfway Park would be injured the most, experts believe. The track is just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati and would have yet another gambling venue as competition for the region’s entertainment dollars.
The impact on Kentucky horse racing generally, though, may be more psychological than financial. Although the Ohio referendum would direct about $18million in wagering taxes to horse racing, Kentucky racing officials said that probably wouldn’t boost purses high enough to be competitive.
Still, it marked another state moving forward with casinos while Kentucky officials continue to debate the issue. And passage would offer Kentucky gamblers yet another out-of-state place to spend their money.
Elliston said Kentucky lawmakers can still act to help Turfway Park and other horse tracks survive the increased competition if they set aside a constitutional amendment proposal and vote early next year to authorize slots at the tracks.
“It’s difficult to foresee a future for the horse racing industry in Kentucky beyond a couple years if they fail to give us the ability to compete with other states,” he said.
Mike Smith, executive director of the Casino Association of Indiana, said Indiana should take steps to protect its casino market, regardless of whether the Ohio referendum passed.
“We should be striving everyday to stay ahead of the competition,” Smith said. “It’s very important for us to — right now — to take a hard look and say, ‘What do we want this industry to look like 10 years from now?’”
More was spent in Ohio on the gambling proposal than during 2008’s hotly contested presidential contest.
It also was the fifth gambling proposal Ohio voters have seen in 20 years. They roundly rejected the others.
The ballot asked voters to amend the Ohio Constitution on such casino issues as the parcels on which casinos could be built; how to distribute a 33percent casino tax to counties, cities, schools and gambling regulation and addiction services; and the combined $300million in ongoing state license fees and minimum initial investments required for each facility.
Elizabeth Groen, 56, voting in the Cincinnati suburb of Anderson Township, said she supported casinos.
“They are going everywhere else,” Groen said. “It’s time that Ohio gets on board.”
But at a Columbus polling location blocks away from a proposed casino site, Chris Protopapas said he voted against the amendment on moral grounds.
“By approving them, it gives tacit approval to the activities, which end up being harmful to society,” said Protopapas, 53, a self-described libertarian.
The casino campaign was particularly nasty, fueled by tens of millions in spending by gambling rivals Penn National Gaming and MTR Gaming Inc. and their friends.
The Ohio Jobs & Growth Committee commissioned a University of Cincinnati study that found casinos would create almost 40,000 full-time and temporary jobs. Labor unions that have opposed gambling issues in the past were convinced by the issue’s key backer, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, that the promise of jobs was legitimate and offered key grassroots support.
TruthPAC, which opposed casinos, fought back aggressively. The group suggested in ads, fliers, media campaigns and news conferences that the job figures were exaggerated, the backers’ business motives were suspect and the proposed tax formula was unfair.
The University of Cincinnati jobs study predicted 39,251 jobs and $4billion in overall economic impact from the four casino sites. The social costs of expanded gambling were not considered.
Reporter Lesley Stedman Weidenbener contributed to this story.
Ohio casino vote: Allow casinos in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo.
This article appears as it was reported by the Courier Journal.