Gambling dispute splits up Ohio governor, veterans
By JOE VARDON | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: July 7, 2014
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A coalition of veterans and fraternal groups upset over the state’s handling of their electronic raffle machines are attempting to use it as a political issue against Republican Gov. John Kasich in his bid for re-election.
Last year, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine declared the devices operating in hundreds of veterans posts and fraternal lodges in Ohio illegal gambling devices, although a local court granted a temporary injunction for posts and lodges to keep their machines. The Ohio Veterans and Fraternal Charitable Coalition is angry with DeWine, too, but it seems to have set its sights especially on Kasich for the governor’s actions since DeWine’s ruling.
For the first time since it came into existence in 2003, the coalition will invite candidates for the governor’s race to interview for an endorsement because it blames Kasich for holding up legislation that would write into law the legality of its machines.
Coalition leaders told The Dispatch that they also reject Kasich’s solution to DeWine’s ruling — allowing the Ohio Lottery Commission to install legal next-generation electronic slot machines.
The coalition is collecting “thousands” of signatures from members to get language approved for a statewide ballot initiative to make the machines legal. Officials said “when our members see this, they know it’s because of the governor.” Leaders of the coalition said individual lodges and posts could even protest at Kasich campaign events.
On the matter of who is responsible for the legislature’s failure to vote on House Bill 325, which would make the raffle machines legal, there seems to be little disagreement.
“We told legislators that we had a better, legally assured path forward with (slot) machines, and House and Senate leadership agreed with us,” Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said.
What’s undecided is the impact the coalition’s political actions might have on Kasich. Will this go much beyond the yearlong policy disagreement between the Kasich administration and the coalition, or it will morph into military veterans openly protesting against a Republican governor?
“This issue is going to be alive, it’s going to be there” in the fall, said Bill Seagraves, chairman of the veterans and fraternal coalition.
“All of our members are of voting age, we have a lot of clout,” added Merle Pratt, secretary for the coalition.
Nichols, who as Kasich’s spokesman was not speaking about the election but acknowledging that sometimes policy and politics mix, countered: “We don’t think the No. 1 issue facing our returning veterans is what kind of gambling machine they get to play with at a lodge.”
Kasich recently signed into law provisions designed to make it easier for veterans to get licensing for work, gain college credit and get career counseling.
The coalition consists of state chapters of veterans organizations such as AmVets, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars; fraternal groups including Eagles, Elks and Moose; and smaller, unaffiliated groups. Membership of those groups is 2.1 million people, Pratt said, with about 700,000 coming from the veterans organizations.
Pratt acknowledges that a central challenge is making the coalition’s case to all veterans.
“There are two types of veterans: the older, post-going, most-of-us-having-served-in-Vietnam, those kinds of veterans, and then the younger veterans who aren’t active at the post, they’re busy raising families and starting careers,” Pratt said. “Some of the stuff (Kasich) has done has helped (younger veterans). He’s not helping our posts survive.”
The Kasich plan to replace raffle machines, which was authorized by a small, legislative state spending-oversight panel, was for the lottery commission to spend $22.5 million for 1,200 machines from Intralot, the Greece-based supplier of lottery games and software. The lodges and posts would get 40 percent of the proceeds from the new machines, or about $7 million.
Veterans oppose this plan, saying their electronic raffle games provide a greater payoff and also leave more money to donate to other charities. But the payout to players on Intralot’s machines is 90 percent versus 63 percent on the raffle machines.
The coalition is collecting signatures to place its issue on the ballot in 2015 in the event it loses its court case. But posts and lodges also have ordered 675 of the new Intralot machines to hedge their bets.
Democrat Ed FitzGerald, who is running against Kasich, has said he is evaluating the concerns and is expected to roll out policies toward veterans later in the summer.
Both the Kasich administration and the coalition have some apparent personal ties to their respective plans, although they both deny that those relationships have anything to do with their positions.
One of Intralot’s chief lobbyists is Robert F. Klaffky, regarded as close to both Kasich and to House Speaker William G. Batchelder, who is refusing to move House Bill 325. On the coalition’s side, Seagraves’ grandson works for the Charitable Management Capital Group, the Ohio-based company that makes the raffle machines. Also, the Charitable Management Capital Group and the coalition share a lobbyist — Mitch Given.