09/21/2009 12:00AM

Court favors Ohio slots vote

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The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Monday that opponents of a plan to put slot machines at Ohio racetracks should be allowed to go forward with a petition drive asking voters to approve the measure.

The ruling deals a serious blow to the seven Ohio racetracks that received authorization earlier this year to install 2,500 slot machines each through a budget measure approved by the legislature. The court said that opponents of the measure should be allowed to challenge the plan through a statewide referendum.

LetOhioVote.org, the group that challenged the budget measure, was given 90 days to collect signatures to put the issue on the ballot. If the petition drive is successful - which is considered a given - then the earliest the referendum could appear is November 2010. Racetracks will be barred from operating slot machines until the vote is held.

The impact of the plan on the Ohio racing industry has been unclear ever since the legislature approved the measure this summer as a way to help close a $2.1 billion budget gap. Though racetracks were promised a 50 percent cut of the revenue, the measure did not direct any of the revenues to purse subsidies.

The ruling may also put racetracks at a severe disadvantage if a referendum authorizing casinos in Ohio's four largest cities receives voter approval this November, giving casino companies a one-year jump on racetracks.

Last week, Harrah's Entertainment, the casino company, reached a deal to buy one of the Ohio Thoroughbred tracks, Thistledown outside of Cleveland, from bankrupt Magna Entertainment in a deal that could be worth $89.5 million, with $47.5 million of that price hinging on the slot-machine plan going forward.