Ohio lawmakers approve new gambling regs

ANN SANNER Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A hard-fought legislative compromise to give extra money to certain cities with horse racetracks sent Ohio's new gambling regulations through the Legislature and to the governor's desk on Thursday.

The wide-ranging bill lays out rules for casinos, bingo halls and slots-like video lottery terminals that are coming to the state's seven horse tracks.

The legislation's passage comes on the heels of Ohio's first casino opening in downtown Cleveland last week, and as Toledo prepares for its casino to open on Tuesday.

The Ohio House approved the gambling overhaul on a 71-23 vote on Thursday. The state Senate then voted 26-3. Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign the legislation.

The Legislature passed the bill after a negotiating committee agreed to funnel additional money to the host cities of the so-called horse racinos. Opponents had contended the racing facilities will add to city coffers through property taxes, while supporters argued the communities could use the extra money for additional law enforcement and other needs.

Under the legislation, cities would get $1 million each year for two years. Half of the $1 million is to be spent on infrastructure; the other half could be spent at the cities' discretion. The dollars are a part of a fund set aside for racetrack communities that casinos agreed to pay into as part of a separate deal with the governor.

The bill also instructs Kasich and the State Racing Commission to negotiate an additional allocation of $500,000 per year to the local communities after the two years.

Columbus, which has a casino opening later as well as a racetrack, is excluded from getting the extra money.

Charity card rooms remained a sticking point between the House and Senate versions of the gambling overhaul so the negotiating panel decided to leave the issue for debate in a separate bill. Charities can book the rooms to run poker games and use the proceeds for their cause. Cuyahoga County in northeast Ohio is currently the only county with such a facility.

Among other changes, the bill would place a one-year moratorium on new Internet "sweepstakes" cafes. Customers who play the games pay for Internet time or phone cards and use them to bet points on computers loaded with games such as poker or slots. Winners can get cash or merchandise prizes from the games, which are largely unregulated.

The measure also bolsters oversight of gambling by giving the state inspector general certain powers to investigate conduct at casinos and keep watch over the employees of the state's attorney general who will act as law enforcement agents at the casinos.

The bill would take effect upon the governor's signature.

"It's going to make gaming in this state rational," said state Rep. Lou Blessing, a Cincinnati Republican who sponsored the legislation. "It will be controlled, regulated. People will know the rules."

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