Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland will sign an executive order to authorize racetrack slots as part of a compromise with legislative leaders to break a budget stalemate, officials said Friday.
The legalization of racetrack slots in Ohio is something that Kentucky horse industry leaders say they have feared for some time because slots would give Ohio tracks an advantage in attracting customers.
The Ohio order is the linchpin of a budget compromise with Senate Republicans, who have in turn agreed to include language in the $54 billion, two-year state budget that clarifies state gambling law to protect the state from lawsuits.
David Zanotti, executive director of the anti-gambling Ohio Roundtable, said his group will follow through with threats to sue over the slots move.
"Last time I checked, he was elected governor, not king," Zanotti said. "It'll be interesting if the governor has the courage to take this stand in court and explain to the people of Ohio how in 1973 their vote (in favor of the Ohio Lottery) authorized casino-style gambling in racetracks in this state."
A Kentucky Senate budget committee voted last month against a proposal to legalize slot machines at Kentucky tracks. Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky said it might have to close by the end of 2010 if Ohio gets slots, and Ellis Park in Henderson is slated to close after this summer's meet ends on Sept. 7.
"Today's agreement between the Ohio governor and Ohio legislative leaders is yet another nail being driven into the coffin of our signature racing and breeding industry," said Patrick Neely, executive director of Kentucky Equine Education Project.
"In a week that has already seen Riverside Downs in Kentucky closing its doors as a training center and Keene land announcing hundreds of thousands of dollars cut from stakes purses, this is not the exclamation point we needed," Neely said.
"On the contrary, this only serves to reinforce the argument we have been making all along — that other states are fighting hard to take an industry that supports a $4 billion economy away from this state. We should be fighting just as hard to keep it."
Neely said 11 of Kentucky's closest 12 competitor states were enhancing their racing and breeding programs through revenue derived from expanded gaming.
But Martin Cothran, spokesman for Say No to Casinos, said more gaming is not the best way to stay competitive.
"We think that if the tracks would do a better job promoting their product and serving their customers they could compete with racinos in other states," Cothran said, noting Churchill Downs' popular night racing as an example.
"The horse industry needs to decide if they are going to jump in and be just like all the other states around us, or if they're going to highlight what is unique to Kentucky, which is our horse culture," Cothran said.
Cothran said there are no reliable figures determining how Kentucky is affected by residents crossing the state's borders to gamble at casinos.
Ohio's governor has insisted that some action by that state's legislature is required in connection with the slots plan because Ohio law prohibits "schemes of chance," which include slots, and the governor's authority to expand the state's lottery with a non-ticketed game is legally tenuous.
Senate President Bill Harris argued that the governor either should use his executive authority to add slots to the Ohio Lottery or take the question to the ballot. Ohio voters have repeatedly rejected efforts to expand gambling.