Trying to Deal Cincinnati In

City council members look to offset potential casino windfall in Northern Kentucky

Mar 10, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Jason Kidwell

With Kentucky lawmakers considering a plan that eventually could allow casinos in Covington and Newport, Cincinnati officials are waging their own political battle to bring gambling to the Queen City — though the odds are stacked against them.

Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding recently introduced a resolution that asks the Ohio General Assembly to place an amendment on the statewide ballot in November that, if approved, would allow full casino gaming in any Ohio county that borders a state where any type of gambling is allowed.

Under the proposal, up to two casino gaming licenses could be awarded in each county that would qualify: one in the county seat of government, like Cincinnati in Hamilton County, and one outside the county seat, which would allow suburban areas in on the deal.

Supporters of gambling in Kentucky say a casino just across the river from Cincinnati likely would generate more than $315 million in annual revenue, with $160 million raised each year in taxes. A large chunk of that money would come from the pockets of Hamilton County residents and tourists, Berding says. Additionally, the casino probably would attract restaurants, hotels and other businesses to be built nearby.

"The approval of casinos in Northern Kentucky is a direct economic threat to the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County," Berding says. "The city of Cincinnati stands to lose millions of dollars in future economic development as a result of a casino across the river."

It's already a common site to see dozens of Hamilton County license plates in the parking lots of casinos in southeast Indiana on any given day, and places like Aurora, Lawrenceburg and Vevay have yielded a tremendous financial windfall as a result. Each year, Ohioans also take about $2 billion in revenue outside the state to gamble in locales across the United States, studies indicate.

Berding believes the local drain would worsen if Kentucky joins the casino club.

"(We don't) propose to add casino gaming to all parts of the state, only those areas threatened economically by new neighboring casinos," he says. "Ohio currently loses $160 million in convention business that goes elsewhere in the region primarily due to nearby out-of-state casinos."

Berding's proposal has the support of a city council majority. His fellow Democrats Laketa Cole and John Cranley have endorsed the concept, as have Charterites Chris Bortz and Roxanne Qualls and Republican Leslie Ghiz. Council's Economic Development Committee will discuss the motion Tuesday, and it probably will be forwarded to state lawmakers by month's end.

That's the easy part. It will be much more difficult to get the Ohio General Assembly to accept and approve a bill in the tight timeframe needed to make the November ballot, to say nothing of trying to avoid a possible veto by Gov. Ted Strickland, who generally opposes gambling initiatives.

"I think it may be a futile effort because we have a governor who is anti-gambling, but we have to try everything," Ghiz says. "I don't want to just give up. This would be very harmful economically for the city if it just comes to Northern Kentucky."

A few state lawmakers from this region have agreed to draft a proposed bill that contains wording acceptable to their colleagues and try to introduce the measure this spring.

"Our goal is to get something to the governor's desk," Ghiz says. "We want to tell him this is a very important part of the state and you're going to kill it unless you give us this option."

Supporters of Berding's proposal are taking some hope from Strickland's decision in January to allow Keno gaming at various bars and restaurants beginning this July. The casino-style game involves players placing bets on an array of numbers displayed on television screens, hoping their numbers will be selected. Automatic drawings are held every four minutes, offering jackpots of up to $2 million.

Strickland has said Keno gaming could generate $73 million annually for education and help offset the state's budget crisis.

In 2006, Ghiz was among the supporters of a statewide ballot initiative, known as Issue 3, that would have allowed slot machines to operate at seven Ohio horse racing tracks and at two casino sites in Cleveland. Voters rejected the measure 57-43 percent. Generally, Ohio's bigger cities — with the exception of Columbus — supported the issue and many rural and suburban areas were opposed.

Organized opposition to that measure emphasized the projected 109,000 people who would become addicted to gambling if it was approved.

The National Council on Problem Gambling reports that 2 million people, about 1 percent of U.S. adults, are estimated to meet criteria for pathological gambling in a given year. Another 4 million to 8 million, about 3 percent of U.S. adults, are considered problem gamblers; although they don't meet the full diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling, they meet one or more of the criteria and are experiencing problems due to their gambling behavior.

Studies indicate about 85 percent of U.S. adults have gambled at least once in their lives and 60 percent have done so in the past year.

Recent national polls show that 63 percent of Americans approve of legalized gambling but 29 percent would like gambling reduced or banned outright. Also, studies indicate compulsive gamblers have a suicide rate about 200 times higher than the national average, and it's about 150 times higher than the average for their spouses.

Trying another casino ballot measure in Ohio so soon after the earlier defeat is a longshot, Ghiz concedes. She estimates that about $10 million would be needed to wage a successful campaign.

"It's worth a try," Ghiz says. "We can't just let Kentucky move forward with this and not try something." ©