WEEKLY FEATURE: Gambling Tide Rolls in Alabama

Nearly 90 percent of Alabama voters want to vote on gambling and 80 percent favor an education lottery, according to a new Alabama Jobs Foundation poll. State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh has proposed legislation that would allow casino gambling at four dog racetracks and a state lottery.

A recent poll commissioned by Alabama Jobs Foundation and conducted by TargetPoint Consulting of Virginia, revealed 89 percent of Alabama voters approve a vote on gambling; 80 percent support a lottery for education; 69 percent support a constitutional amendment allowing gambling; and 66 percent oppose new taxes as a solution to the state’s budget crisis. The poll of 809 registered Alabama voters had a margin of error of about 3.45 percent. Foundation Director Chip Hill said, “This poll gives us every reason to be optimistic as we go forth in our efforts to promote passage of the constitutional amendment being proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh.”

Marsh’s proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Bill 8, which recently passed the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee (where Marsh is chairman) in a 6-2 vote, would establish a lottery and Las Vegas-style gambling at four dog racetracks across the state. Marsh said legalized gambling and a lottery would generate up to $400 million annually in new state revenue, have an economic impact of almost $1.3 billion and create 11,000 new jobs. The committee approved the same bill during the regular legislative session in June, but due to lack of support among a majority of senators, Marsh did not bring it to the floor for debate.

Marsh noted the measure would not solve the current budget crisis and even after passage, it would take up to two years for the state to benefit from gambling-related revenue. But he said, “The people understand that this is an option that needs to be out there. I think we all agree that if we had this in place, it would contribute and help solve future problems. And I have to especially ask my colleagues to consider this when I see that 66 percent of those polled oppose new taxes.”

Under Marsh’s bill, proceeds from a lottery would go to education and casino tax revenue would go to the state’s General Fund. In addition, under the bill, a gaming commission would be established .

At a public hearing held before the committee vote, former Auburn University football coach Pat Dye, who leads the Alabama Jobs Foundation, said gambling already exists in Alabama at Indian bingo casinos that operate free of competition. “I think we got gambling going on in the state right now. The problem with that is we don’t get any revenue for it,” Dye said.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, spoke against Marsh’s bill. He said lotteries and casino gambling have proven to be “the biggest public policy failures everywhere they have been tried over the past 40 years” and that gambling makes government “complicit in trying to deceive the citizens of their state that they can gamble their way out of poverty.” He told Marsh, “It shocks me that you have gotten behind this and support this. You know it’s poor economic policy, poor fiscal policy. I don’t understand it.”

Lawmakers are in a special session through August 11 to address a projected $200 million shortfall in the general fund budget. In the 35-member Senate, where the bill now is being considered, emotions have been running high. For example, state Senator Dick Brewbaker said he believes lawmakers are being manipulated to support gambling legislation. “It’s a way to prey on families. It’s a voluntary unlimited tax on the portion of our community least able to sustain it and that’s why I’m against it,” he said. “Republicans, when you go back to your districts, just tell the people who supported you that we are the party of gaming. It used be the Democratic Party. Let’s just be honest about it.”

In response to Brewbaker, state Senator Bobby Singleton said, “You don’t care nothing about poor folk. You don’t care about who it hurts. I haven’t seen you come up here and advocate for one job in my community not one time over in west Alabama where poor folk are.”

Marsh took the microphone and said, “It’s really frustrating when I have people come up raising Cain who have been invited to several meetings that have taken place to solve this problem and half the time they don’t show up or leave. If you are not going to participate at least come in and follow the lead, especially when the lead is not trying to lead you down a path that you don’t want to go.”

Marsh also has filed Senate Bill 16, a constitutional amendment that would end nonprofit bingo in certain cities and counties.