Ailing Ohio economy sways voters toward casinos

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Ohio voters opened the door to casinos on Tuesday, sparking a debate on whether the new gambling will help the state’s ailing economy.

Ted Strickland (L) celebrates with his wife Frances in downtown Columbus, Ohio, November 7, 2006. REUTERS/John Sommers II

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said he was “personally disappointed” with the vote result, but acknowledged that voters were willing to take a chance on casinos due to the economic recession.

“The voters have spoken and state leaders and legislators must now implement the constitutional amendment while making sure it benefits the people of this state and puts more Ohioans to work,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

Ohio voters rejected casino measures on previous ballots, but the state’s sagging economy, evidenced in a 10.1 percent jobless rate in September and sinking tax revenue, apparently changed their minds.

Nearly 53 percent of Ohio voters supported the measure on Tuesday’s state-wide ballot to allow casinos in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Proponents of the measure, including Penn National Gaming, have said the casinos will create 34,000 jobs, bring $200 million in licensing fees and generate an estimated $651 million annually in revenue for cash-strapped Ohio and its local governments and school districts.

A spokesman for Penn National did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Rob Walgate, vice president of Ohio Roundtable, a public policy group that opposed the casino measure, questioned whether the casinos would fulfill their financial promise.

“Two times since 2000 we’ve expanded gambling in Ohio and we have not hit the revenue projections once,” he said, pointing to the introduction of video Keno games and the Mega-Millions lottery.

The prospect of Ohio casinos has worried officials in nearby Indiana, which is home to several casinos. A legislative report last month said Indiana could lose as much as $103 million in tax revenue if casinos become a reality in Ohio.