COLUMBUS- Ah, election season in Ohio. I have been out of state for quite a while, but I am delighted to be back in Ohio for election time. One can walk down the street and all but smell the politics simmering: harried college kids taking a semester off to campaign, politicians out and about, sticking their noses into the very diapers of tiny constituents, the sickly sweet fragrance of ballot paper…wait, those ballots aren’t supposed to smell like that! Blackwell, what are you doing?

The Grinch of election season, our Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, as chair of the bi-partisan Ohio Ballot Board and the fifth vote on a board of five, has quite an influence over ballot language in this state.

Issue 3 is an education reform bill which proposes an amendment to the Ohio constitution permitting slot machines in the seven Ohio horse tracks and two casinos in downtown Cleveland (as yet to be built). By constitutional amendment, 30% of the revenue generated by these machines shall be placed into individual student accounts, under the authority and direction of the Ohio Board of Regents. This amendment is written as an education reform bill, beginning to end, and although the would-be casino operators have funded most of the campaign, the order in which the bill reads is education, then slots. The machines are not the focal point; indeed, most of the text concerning the machines is used to limit them.

The language on the ballot, however, represents the bill very differently. There are only two bullets that even mention education, one lumping it in with the money that the bill proposes to distribute to local and state government funds. The other section that mentions education is the bit about revenue distribution, “55% to the slot and casino owners and operators, 30% to the Board of Regents for college scholarships and grants to eligible students and administration of the program.” All Ohio students are eligible, regardless of income, but the ballot doesn’t mention that. Although for the first twelve years only the students in the top 5% of the state will have fully-funded secondary school, every student will receive some amount of credits.

Fifty-five percent may be a somewhat misleading figure as well, since that money includes the taxes paid by an employer, initial capital invested in the slot machines, facility operation, construction costs, worker wages and benefits, social security, workman’s compensation, and the purses paid. The Learn and Earn’s breakdown of the machine revenue figures is considerably different; they place the casino’s profit at 9.5%.

I emailed the Secretary of State’s press office several times and received no response. They don’t seem to check their answering machines very often, either, so I decided to make a field trip to the office. As it was a pleasant, though cold and rainy, Columbus morning, I decided to crash my motorcycle into a large puddle on the corner of Broad and High, directly under the Secretary of State’s Borden Building office. I stood up and screamed curses at the rain and the murderous motorists trying to run me down. As I lifted my bike I realized that the crash had torn a large hole in the trousers of my nice woolen suit. I finally confronted the Spokesman for the Secretary of State soaking wet and with my ass hanging out all over his office. Perhaps this had something to do the reception I was given. Mr. James Lee refused to shake my hand or allow me to record our “interview”; he was willing, however, to regard me from across the room as though I were a dangerous insect.

“The language on the ballot was developed by the Ohio Ballot Board, which is a bi-partisan board, and the vote for the language was unanimous. The citizens were encouraged to help determine the language,” was all I could extract from him.

Interesting. Did you feel encouraged to have a voice in the ballot language?

I asked for comment regarding the rumor that there had been previous language for the ballot that had been rewritten, and he said that there had not been.

Mr. Ian James, the director of operations for the Issue 3 campaign, had a different take on the situation.

“We submitted language that was based on the bill, with the information presented in the order it appears in the bill. This was rejected or rewritten by the Ballot Board.”

The Ballot Board has represented the proposed amendment as a way to legalize slot machines in Ohio and make the casino owners rich. While the projection of 9.5% profit seems likely to be low, the amendment is still heavily rooted in reforming Ohio secondary schooling options, which are pitiful when looked at in a national context: we are ranked 49th in college affordability and 49th in state appropriations. The average student is $19,000 in debt after he or she graduates, and the average family spends 42% of their annual income on tuition. Since 1990, tuition in the state has increased by 225%, and our tuition costs about 45% more than that of most other states, according to Mr. Lee. We can of course count on Blackwell to oppose anything socially progressive. But why would a “bi-partisan” ballot board comprised of Ohio legislatures on both sides of the fence unanimously approve this language when it doesn’t reflect the issue?

Perhaps it has something to do with the proposal itself. This proposed amendment is a reaction to a similar bill (though not an Amendment) which passed the Ohio Senate, but not the House, only a few years ago. When Congress says “no” to a bill, the only way to get around the refusal is to give the decision to the people, allowing them an opportunity to change their Constitution to reflect their desires. Not only does this approach go over the heads of the legislatures, it also positively reeks of direct democracy, which politicians in both parties fear deep in their oily blood. The bill also requires that Congress take action within six months of the bill’s passing to create the Gaming Integrity Commission, the regulatory panel that will lay down the guidelines for slot gaming in Ohio. If the legislature fails to act within that time period, the governance will fall to the Lottery Commission. No one wants that. This provision would prevent a resentful Congress from sitting on the regulatory aspects of the bill, which would effectively kill it, as there could be no new gaming without regulations drafted.

While the Ohio executive branch has done wonders for the condition of public education in Ohio, one must wonder if there aren’t perhaps other options for our youth. If enough people signed the petition to get the bill on the ballot, what say we let the fucking constituency decide?