July 28, 2014

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Legislature moves to ban cash-paying gaming machines

COLUMBUS — After a summer full of political wrangling and fingerpointing over the sudden proliferation of gaming machines, House Republicans said Tuesday they will introduce a plan they previously opposed: allowing game players to win modest prizes but not cash.

The mind-boggling complexity of regulating machines with names like Tic Tac Fruit has House Republicans poised to adopt a plan that was proposed by Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration in June. The announcement comes as horse racing tracks have begun to install the machines out of fear they will lose business to bars that have the devices.

Strickland and House Speaker Jon Husted have said they agree on the goal of stopping gambling, but had previously disagreed on the method.

Under current law, gaming machines that rely on chance are illegal, while those that rely on skill are legal. Some, including Husted, had said strengthening that distinction and banning games that had any element of chance was the best way to stop the 50,000 gaming machines that have sprung up in bars, storefronts and fraternal clubs across the state.

But after months of debate, the speaker’s office now says banning cash payouts is the only plausible way to stop illegal gambling.

“That’s the best idea that’s on the table right now,” said Scott Borgemenke, Husted’s chief of staff. “We have not figured out what the difference is with these (skill and chance) machines.”

Both Husted and Strickland have said voters don’t support the spread of the machines.

“The governor will fight to protect the will of Ohio voters who have been very clear that they don’t support expanded gambling,” Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey said.

Last November, Ohioans voted down a ballot issue that would have legalized slot machines at racetracks and two proposed parlors in Cleveland. Voters also rejected proposals to legalize casino gambling in 1990 and 1996.

Bar operators and gambling proponents, however, have said recent polls show voters do not oppose so-called skill games.

Details on what types of prizes will be allowed under the GOP plan, and how much they can be worth, still need to be worked out. Republicans said they hope to have a bill ready to vote on in October.

The Senate is waiting until it sees details of the plan before gauging what kind of support it may have from senators and stakeholders.

Lawmakers will have to agree on language that will allow prizes like the stuffed animals children can win at Chuck E. Cheese. But most also want to ban high value prizes like cruises or TVs.

In addition to banning cash payouts, lawmakers were also examining the possibility of strengthening the definition of what constitutes skill and what defines chance.