A casino sports book. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful John Cranley is calling on state lawmakers to abandon a sports betting measure that has already passed the Senate, and instead establish sports gaming under the Ohio Lottery Commission’s existing authority. Cranley argues that approach would avoid a lengthy court battle and make more funding available for public schools.
The Cincinnati mayor has promised, if elected governor, he’ll appoint Lottery Commission members who would use their position to provide sports betting in Ohio. Under SB 176, which passed the Senate in June, the state Casino Control Commission would oversee sports betting instead of the Lottery Commission.
The debate over which commission should control sports gambling has long been a sticking point for lawmakers trying to legalize betting. The lottery is constitutionally obligated to send its proceeds to public education exclusively, while SB 176 would divide the proceeds from its 10% tax on gaming receipts between public and non-public schools.
“The Constitution says if you do it through the Lottery Commission, every dollar must go to public education,” Cranley said. “This bill is fuzzy about that and says, essentially, we’ll figure out what to do with the money later we’ll do public, private, we’ll do vouchers, all kinds of things that could undermine public education.”
Earlier this year House lawmakers rejected a bid by the Senate to tack the gambling provisions onto an unrelated bill for veteran’s ID cards. But now House leaders suggest they may have reached a compromise.
Cranley argued if they’re using SB 176 as a starting point they’re likely headed for court.
“This thing is unconstitutional in two ways,” Cranley said. “One, the Casino Control Commission does not have the authority under the constitution to do sports betting, and you can’t pass a law that violates the Ohio Constitution. Only the Lottery Commission under the constitution has the power to expand gambling beyond the four casinos. And under the constitution, gambling proceeds have to go to public education unless they’re for the four casinos.”
To back up his claims about the Lottery Commission’s existing authority, Cranley points to a 2019 legislative service commission report prepared for former Rep. Dave Greenspan, which found the Lottery Commission likely has the authority to go forward.
“Because the Lottery Law grants broad authority to the State Lottery Commission to conduct lotteries and the lotteries are exempt from the Gambling Law, it appears that the Commission may be able to create and operate a sports betting lottery under Ohio law,” the report stated.
But while legislative analysts believe the Lottery Commission could act, they don’t take the position that only the Lottery Commission can act. In the analysis for SB 176, they write the Ohio Supreme Court has yet to weigh in, and the question will boil down to the definition of “lottery,” which is left vague in the state constitution.
If the courts interpret gambling writ large as a lottery, that “would appear to bar any sports gaming outside the context of the state lottery or casinos,” the analysis states.
On the other hand, if the courts take a narrower view, defining a lottery as a specific type of gambling, lawmakers would likely have room to establish sports betting as they see fit. Ohio’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has already backed that reading of the constitution.
Cranley is currently competing for the Ohio Democratic nomination for governor in 2022 against Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley who also criticized the current sports betting proposals.
“Nan believes that if we’re going to legalize sports betting, we must do it in a way that benefits Ohio communities and businesses, not out-of-state corporations,” Whaley spokesperson Courtney Rice said in a statement. “Ohioans are sick and tired of sweetheart deals cooked up in backrooms. Our state government is too corrupt to be trusted with this much money without a much more transparent process than we’ve seen so far.”
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