November 24, 2014

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Plugs may be pulled on gaming today

It was standing-room only Wednesday at the Thrill of Skill in Amherst, where gamers were squeezing in what could be their last chance to play video gaming machines like Tic Tac Fruit in their own state.

That’s because it soon will be a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 when Gov. Ted Strickland signs House Bill 177, which will outlaw the games that resemble slot machines.

The governor is expected to sign the law as soon as today, a spokesman said.

JASON MILLER/CHRONICLE
The screens of skill gaming video machines may go dark today if Gov. Ted Strickland signs a bill banning the machines.

Ryan Hollohozy, 20, of Amherst, said he’ll miss the machines when they are turned off.

“Sometimes I work seven days a week, so this is something I do for fun,” Hollohozy said. “I don’t like to drive to Detroit to visit casinos there.”

His biggest win was $230, and he usually wagers no more than $20, he said.

What’s his biggest loss?

“Let’s not go there,” Hollohozy said.

Upon the governor’s signature, the law goes into effect immediately, and parlor owners — and players — are subject to being charged by local police, said Gary Abicht, chief investigator for Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will.

A second offense becomes a fifth-degree felony, and each subsequent offense moves up one step in terms of severity, Abicht said.

The decision to outlaw the machines amused Lorain supermarket owner Ben Fligner, who has been using revenue from the machines to offset extra costs for workers’ compensation due to the drain on the fund from the Coingate scandal.

He showed off a game that looks a lot like tic-tac-toe called “Buckeye Bump Road Trip” and showed receipts of winners who took away $665.82.

“The state can gamble on rare coins with our money, but we’re not allowed to have skill machines in the state,” Fligner said. “What the state should do is take a cut off the proceeds of the machines, and everyone will be happy.”

But Strickland has no intention of bending on the gambling issue, said spokesman Keith Dailey, who said Coingate occurred under the administration of former Gov. Bob Taft.

“I can’t speak for the former administration, but I can speak for Gov. Strickland, and he is opposed to any expansion of gambling in Ohio — people don’t support gambling as the key to economic recovery,” Dailey said.

The last ballot issue, which would have brought slot machines to horse tracks and allowed some other gaming, failed by a comfortable margin last November, he said.

But gaming enthusiasts said they think Ohio is missing out on tax revenues and that people will find somewhere to gamble — even if they have to drive to an adjoining state.

Jeanne Gibbs, who enjoys playing the games, said she got so upset about passage of the law that she called the governor’s office but only got a recording.

“What’s the difference between this and bingo?” Gibbs asked.

Some of the games are pretty difficult and do involve skill, Gibbs said.

“There’s one where this little monkey throws these little balls and you have to catch it in the bonus area,” she said.

The new law, which passed the Ohio House 83-13 and the Ohio Senate 26-7, is needed because “there’s no oversight, no tax and no benefit to the state,” state Rep. Joseph Koziura, D-Lorain, said.

“It’s outrageous,” said Koziura, who supported earlier attempts to bring gaming to the area, including a casino in Lorain.

The Lorain casino “would have been a mini Las Vegas,” but no tourism is driven by skilled-game parlors, Koziura said.

There are some 50,000 machines statewide generating hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, according to a spokesman for Attorney General Marc Dann.

Koziura said gaming interests were successful in inserting language allowing the machines into a 2003 budget bill that few people read cover to cover.

It banned games based “largely or wholly on chance,” and vending companies used the loophole.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.