The Magazine

Keeping Up with the Hoosiers

Ohio comes down with a case of casino envy.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By DAVID WOLFFORD
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Yates is a member of TruthPAC, which is leading the charge against Issue 3. TruthPAC objects to enacting a proposal drafted by, and overly beneficial to, casino owners. Spokeswoman Sandy Theis accuses the "gambling cartel" of buying support, saying, "They're passing out more cash prizes than Monty Hall." Issue 3 includes money for law enforcement--and voilà, the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police endorsed it. The casinos hired former state GOP chairman Bob Bennett, and according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Bennett pressured Republican county chairs and held a fundraiser for Cleveland's Democratic mayor, Frank Jackson, a casino supporter who's up for reelection.

"As soon as the issue went on the ballot, we started looking for natural allies and unnatural allies to defeat it," said Theis. She's right that antigambling conservatives and gambling interests make strange bedfellows. Both out-of-state casinos and Ohio race tracks oppose Issue 3. MTR Gaming--which runs a resort in Chester, West Virginia, and a Columbus horse track--doesn't want to be boxed out of the cartel, nor does it want to lose its Ohio customers. Horse track operators hope that Strickland's VLTs will eventually arrive--and they don't want to compete with full-scale casinos.

"No one with a financial interest in the casino debate is wearing a white hat," says Yates. "They're all gangsters in this one." In last year's general election, a Minnesota casino company, Lakes Entertainment, fought for exclusive rights to a planned casino resort in Wilmington, Ohio, and Penn National donated over $37 million to defeat it. Penn, which owns Argosy Casino just across the state line in Indiana, feared the Wilmington facility would steal its customers. Now Penn is pushing for Issue 3, while MTR Gaming helps bankroll TruthPAC.

MTR refused to comment on its involvement. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, which include donations and expenses through October 12, Ohio Jobs and Growth has raked in about $35 million, while TruthPAC has received nearly $6 million. The difference is telling, but considering last year Penn kicked in over $10 million in the final days of the campaign to defeat its competitor, MTR may raise the stakes during the final hand. In Ohio, there is no limit on contributions for ballot issues.

Proponents of Issue 3 avoid any discussion of social costs, and those opponents who raise them tend to be the less well funded and less able to command air time. But Citizens for Community Values, a 25-year-old group based in Cincinnati that "exists to promote Judeo-Christian moral values," is on the case. They cite studies projecting that the costs of crime, bankruptcy, suicide, and damage to families brought in gambling's wake will more than outweigh any benefit to the state from the proceeds of casinos.

In the past, such arguments have resonated in Ohio. Indeed, the state has shown consistent and widespread opposition to casino gambling. But this new offer comes at a difficult time. Unemployment is 10.8 percent statewide, up four points from last year. Polls in recent months show voters favoring gambling. County GOP chairmen report less vigorous opposition than usual among Republicans. Past attempts have won majorities only in the counties slated to host gambling or those next door. This time the casinos have played their cards carefully, making economic promises to the four most populous metropolitan areas. Several leaders in these cities have endorsed Issue 3, as has the AFL-CIO. Unless TruthPAC can hammer home its long list of concerns, the casinos just might hit the jackpot in Ohio.

David Wolfford teaches government and politics in Cincinnati.