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Ohio VLT Plans on Hold as Supreme Court Backs Referendum

22nd September 2009 7:36 am GMT

Gambling opponents challenging plans to install up to 17,500 video lottery terminals (VLTs) at horse racing tracks across the state of Ohio received a major boost Monday when the State Supreme Court ruled that provisions in the state's budget bill authorising the installation are subject to a state-wide voter referendum, since they do not fall within any of the exceptions set forth in the Ohio Constitution.

The court's 6-1 majority opinion, authored by Justice Terrence O'Donnell, granted a writ of mandamus ordering Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to accept and process summary petitions submitted by LetOhioVote.org, a committee established to seek a public vote on the expansion of government-sponsored gambling.

Earlier this year in July, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland signed a bill establishing the state's current biennial budget, authorising the installation and operation of VLTs at seven horse racing tracks across the state under the control and regulation of the Ohio Lottery Commission.

The bill included specific language stating that the provisions authorising VLTs, which are projected to generate $851.5 million in net revenues during the two-year period, were appropriations for current state expenses and therefore exempt from a referendum by voters, and would take effect immediately upon being filed with the Secretary of State.

Later that month three private citizens acting under the name, LetOhioVote.org, attempted to file a summary petition bearing more than 1,000 signatures with Brunner's office, stating its intent to initiate a state-wide voter referendum to repeal the VLT provisions included in the bill. Brunner declined to accept or review the petitions in the absence of a court order, effectively preventing the group from attempting to collect the signatures of the 6% of the state's voters required to place a referendum before voters.

As a result LetOhioVote.org filed a writ in the Supreme Court of Ohio directly challenging the state's plan to install the VLTs, and seeking the court's affirmation of the people's constitutional right to vote on the scheme.

In its decision, the court rejected the assertion that because the funds generated by the VLTs must be used for education, the VLT provisions therefore constituted an appropriation, since "the existence of a separate line item in the bill for appropriation of the revenues generated by VLTs demonstrates that the VLT provisions themselves are not appropriations."

"We are not unmindful of the effect our decision may have on the state budget, nor of the commendable efforts of the members of the executive and legislative branches of state government to fulfil their constitutional duties to balance the budget in Ohio; however, our own constitutional duty is to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Ohio Constitution irrespective of their effect on the state's current financial conditions," said Justice O'Donnell.

Responding to the court's decision, Governor Ted Strickland said: "We decided to pursue legislative authorization of video lottery terminals to help fill a state budget gap caused by the national recession without increasing taxes on working people or businesses during these economically challenging times.

"While I am disappointed by this decision, we need to fully review the court's judgment before determining next steps. The Ohio Lottery Commission has modified its agenda for this afternoon's scheduled meeting, which was to include the video lottery terminal implementation rules, to ensure adequate time to fully review and understand the impact of the court's decision," he said.

LetOhioVote.org has already submitted over 3,000 signatures with the Ohio Secretary of State and Attorney General. Once verified, the committee must collect a further 241,365 signatures to put the slots issue before voters in November 2010.

"We are very serious about protecting the voters' constitutional right to referendum," said LetOhioVote.org committee member Gene Pierce. "Millions of Ohioans deserve the right to vote on expanded gambling. Today's court decision and our filing bring us one step closer to that public vote."

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