Making the News

The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

Originally Published:Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Strickland raises age to 21 for slot machine gamblers

By Reginald Fields and Aaron Marshall
The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

Columbus- Following weeks of steady criticism of his plan to welcome people as young as 18 to gamble, Gov. Ted Strickland on Monday relented and said he now thinks the legal age for slot machine gambling in Ohio should be 21.

Strickland said he was acting on the concerns of leaders at the Ohio Lottery, which will be in charge of overseeing slot machine gambling, and the Department of Public Safety, which will have to police it.

The governor, in a brief statement, did not state what those concerns were. But since pushing his proposal to add electronic slots to horse-racing tracks and subsequently announcing the minimum age to gamble would be 18, Strickland had taken flak from church groups and others.

By raising the age, the governor may have just endeared himself to the rest of the gambling industry, which tries to steer clear of the perception that it preys on teenagers, said gambling expert Joseph Weinert.

Weinert, of Spectrum Gaming in New Jersey, noted that just a few states have a minimum age of 18 for slot machine gambling.

"The industry as a whole has been clear in trying to keep the limit at 21 because they are aware that trying to lower the age would seem predatory in nature," Weinert said. "It would cast the industry in a negative light."

Still looming heavy, however, is whether the governor's gambling plan will even come to fruition. Strickland is counting on slots revenue and licensing fees to bring in $933 million for the state this biennium. Without it, Ohio's budget would be wrecked.

The nervousness is also evident among the state's seven horse track owners who today must decide whether to commit to the slots plan by each coughing up a $13 million down payment toward the $65 million licensing fee.

Strickland, who used an executive order to authorize slots, and the state legislature, which wrote language into the budget to back him up, have both been sued in the past month in the Ohio Supreme Court by three different groups, each claiming the governor overstepped his authority. The third suit was filed on Monday by the Ohio Christian Alliance.

Track owners want the slots to help breathe new life into their businesses. But they want assurances that if the governor's plan is blocked by the high court, they will get a refund.

Meanwhile, Strickland's office downplayed the significance of raising the age requirement, though it was clear that with a minimum age of 18, the market for potential gamblers - and therefore for revenue - was higher.

Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said lottery officials think the decision "should not have a significant impact" on slots revenue. "It's really based on the number of machines being played," Wurst said.

She said officials have no demographic breakdown suggesting how many young people would gamble at slot machines at Ohio racetracks.

Census data estimates from 2000 show roughly 8 million Ohioans age 21 and over and 487,700 Ohioans aged 18-20.

Weinert, from Spectrum Gaming, said on average about 25 percent of a state's population visits a casino at least once a year. By that estimate, Ohio could have expected about 120,000 residents aged 18 to 20 to have visited a combined race track-casino.

Courtney Thompson, a 20-year-old Ohio State University student from Columbus, said she doubts she and her friends would go. But she does play the lottery scratch-off games and doesn't see the difference.

"No way me and my friends would go to one of those places, so I really don't care," Thompson said. "But I think it is messed up that they are saying we can't."

Ohio officials estimate $478 million in gambling revenue in the budget by coming up with a daily take for each slot machine, a figure calculated by the state's tax department. The state also assumes that $455 million will be generated by selling the licenses to the track owners, bringing the total to $933 million over the next two years.

The governor is counting on 80 percent of the 17,500 slot machines to be up and running by May 2010.

Rev. Gregory Hogan, pastor of the first Baptist Church of Barberton, who has been critical of allowing 18-year-olds to gamble, welcomed the change of heart from Strickland.

"I think that it's a very good idea to raise the age," Hogan said. "I just thought the original intent of the governor in making the age so low was just to make more money - that's what seemed to be driving it."

Hogan, whose own son blew thousands of dollars in online poker games beginning when he was 19, said the very young just can't afford to lose.

"These are usually college-aged kids who don't have much disposable cash," Hogan said. "Opening up gambling to them could mean they will be running up huge credit card bills to finance their time at the slot machines."

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