Sucker Bet

So, how does it feel to be a victim of extortion?

Yep, that’s right, you’re about to be blackmailed and you may not even know it. We’re not talking about some cheap thug threatening to show embarrassing pictures to your spouse. We’re talking about your elected representatives in the state capital doing this dirty work.

This legislative strong-arming is designed, on the face of it anyway, to gin up some more cash to run state government in a sagging economy. What the members of the House of Representatives have cooked up is this:

They propose to increase the state sales tax by 1 cent, which, they say, will raise enough money to keep budget coffers filled for a while. Whether that assumption is on the money or not is another matter.
What they then propose is that they will give voters the right to eliminate this extra sales tax after a year goes by. Sounds good, but there’s a trick. The sales tax would go away only if voters approve casino gambling at the state’s racetracks in its place.

Indeed, in the latest version of the budget that’s been approved by the House, Ohioans would face an upside-down ballot proposition that would require a “yes” vote to not initiate casino gambling in the state, a transparent ruse to confuse voters.

Ohioans have twice previously voted down proposals to permit casino gambling, but some people never get the message.

And who are these people?

They are the owners of the state’s racetracks who have seen gamblers move their wagering to the riverboat casinos in neighboring states. Lobbyists for the track owners want the legislature to permit so-called video lottery terminals at the tracks to lure back those lost customers.

Gov. Bob Taft has previously threatened to veto any such proposal, but this new casinos-or-taxes scheme makes things trickier.

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, how people spend their own money is none of my business. If the voters in this state want casinos, that’s their prerogative. At least when you sit down at a blackjack table, you’ve got a fighting chance at winning. In contrast, the lottery, which the state shoves down our throats with endless marketing bombardments, is the dumbest bet in the world.

But we’re not talking about real casinos here, casinos with card games and roulette wheels and craps. Just a cheap imitation. Just a bail-out for the racetracks.

Which raises the question: Why should the racetracks be the beneficiaries of this blackmail scheme? Why are they so special? Why should ordinary Ohioans have this gun put to their heads for the sake of a few business owners?

Why not propose to put slot machines in grocery stores or public libraries or church basements or video rental stores? Why, at a time when the legislature is cracking down on penny-ante gambling at charitable organizations, are politicians so willing to pull out the stops for the horsey set?
Or why not simply ask the voters to approve real casinos instead of this racetrack bail-out?
The answer is obvious: Money talks.

This isn’t just extortion. It’s the result of raw, back-room politics.

They say there’s a sucker born every minute. In Columbus, in the House of Representatives, evidently they think that sucker is you and me.

Copyright, 2003, Jeffrey C. Bruce. All rights reserved.

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