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Ohio Gambling Advocate Starts Ballot Effort On Sports Betting

A man watches a baseball game in a casino.
John Locher
Associated Press
A man watches a baseball game in the sports book at the South Point hotel-casino, Monday, May 14, 2018, in Las Vegas.

Lawmakers are weighing the state’s options in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling clearing the way for legalized sports betting throughout the country.

As they consider legal pathways, a well-known gambling proponent is moving ahead with a campaign to put a legalization question on an upcoming ballot.

Long-time gambling proponent Rick Lertzman says his proposed constitutional amendment would allow sports betting in hundreds of restaurants, bars, fraternal clubs and entertainment venues. He’s wanted to add another casino and horseracing track in Ohio, and he’s opposed to sports betting being limited to only the established gambling facilities, which he calls a “monopolistic” idea.

Lertzman says he’s aiming for the November 2019 ballot, and he says he’ll still beat state lawmakers to the issue.

“By the time they act on this, every state around us, like we had in 2009, will have sports betting," Lertzman said. "West Virginia and Pennsylvania are on the verge of enacting legislation for it; New Jersey the same way. So we can’t allow legislators to drag their feet.”

Among Lertzman’s previous ballot efforts was a failed proposal for a casino in Wilmington in 2008, when Columbus casino owner Penn National Gaming spent more than $38 million against the $21 million his group spent.

A year later, Penn National and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert won over voters with a $50 million campaign for their plan for four casinos.

A Penn National spokesman says the company supports legalized sports betting under the right circumstances – for casino operators, that means requiring what they call a reasonable tax rate, offering it only at Ohio’s four casinos and seven horseracing tracks, and only with regulations.

That’s something that Sen. Bill Coley (R-Liberty Township) has been pushing for – he’s wanted to strengthen Ohio’s gambling laws, especially on fantasy sports. And he’s not sold on the sports betting idea just yet, and says lawmakers have several options to consider.

“If we decide to do it, we must do it right, but if we decide that we don’t want to do it, I think it’s time that we empower the Casino Control Commission to investigate it and route it out of the state because there’s too much of it going on already and it’s time to clean it up,” Coley says.

Ohio Attorney General and candidate for Governor Mike DeWine is urging lawmakers to legalize some form of sports betting to get ahead of special interest groups.

He says it’s unclear how much money would be involved, but he’d suggest it go into education, such as to early childhood development and to knock down pay-to-participate sports fees. But he would insist lawmakers pass something to set the policy on how the state will handle it.

“I think that’s important that they do that because if they do not, some of the special interests will put this on the ballot," DeWine said. "They will write their own check to themselves, basically, and so I think we’re better off having the people’s representatives make these decisions rather than the special interests.”

DeWine’s gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Richard Cordray, says it’s time to consider sports betting as a way to shore up local funding for police, fire, teachers and those fighting the state’s opioid crisis.

“You have activities like this that are going on right now, illegally, not regulated, no protection for individuals, no protection for the taxpayers and the citizens of the state. I think that we would be better off if we would license and regulate this activity and bring it out of the shadows and bring it into public view.”