Ken Hare In Depth: Public not likely to get vote on gambling this year

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When the Poarch Band ofCreek Indians casino debuted in Wetumpka last month, the hype made it soundlike it had almost everything:  A20-story hotel, more than 2,500 gambling machines, five spots to dine, bars,and a 16,000-gallon salt water aquarium.

Butit's also worth considering what the new casino doesn't have. It doesn't have astate tax on the gambling that goes on there to bring badly needed revenue intostate coffers. Because Native American casinos are created under federal, notstate, laws, it doesn't have state regulation of the gambling to protect the interestsof the public or the gamblers.

Andwhat Alabamians don't have is the right to say whether they want such gamblingin the first place.

Despitepromises by many politicians four years ago that Alabamians would have theright to vote on how much and what kinds of legal gambling they would like tohave, it hasn't happened yet. And I do not believe that there will be anyserious attempts in the upcoming legislative session to give Alabamians theright to vote on gambling.

Why?First, the scandal and the federal trial that came out of the last seriousattempt to allow full-scale non-Indian gambling in the state is still too freshon the minds of legislators. That attempt resulted in a federal probe into theinfluence of gambling interests on the legislative process. The legislators whowere indicted were not found guilty, but the trial focused public attention onthe influence of gambling money on the Legislature and politics. I believe manycurrent lawmakers do not want such attention again.

Second,this is an election year for legislators, and in election years legislatorslike to avoid tackling controversial issues on which the voting public issharply divided. And the term "sharply divided" perfectly describesthe gambling issue in Alabama.

Thereare those voters who would like to see all gambling go away. Alabamians cannotsimply vote not to allow Native American groups to operate gambling facilitieswhile the state allows that same class of gambling for non-Native Americangroups. So essentially the only way that those Alabamians who oppose Indiancasinos can eliminate them is to vote out all types of legalized gambling.

Thereare those voters who would like to see wide open casinos. And some voters wouldlike to see casinos or perhaps other forms of gambling, but only if they areclosely regulated.

Becauseany legislation to expand legalized gambling will make about as many peopleangry as it will make happy, don't expect to see it in a legislative electionyear such as this one.

Buteventually there will be another effort to expand legalized gambling. IfAlabamians ever get the opportunity to vote on changing legalized gambling,they need to be sure that they fully understand what they are voting on.

The bill that the Legislatureallows the public to vote on needs to be a clean bill -- not one that gives asweetheart deal to those that operate legalized gambling facilities.

The bill that the public is allowedto vote on should be one that does not grant monopolies to a handful of thepolitically powerful.

It should be a bill that does nothave ridiculously low levels of taxation; instead, it should generate at leastas much tax revenue for the state of Alabama on a percentage basis as theaverage nationally in other states that allow gambling.

It should be a bill that prohibitspoliticians and anyone with criminal connections from being involved ingambling operations, and one that requires every penny of money that goes to apolitician from gambling interests either to be directly disclosed publicly orprohibited completely.

And ... this is most important ...one that includes the creation and funding (from gambling revenue) of a strong,statewide regulatory body that can ensure gamblers and the public get fairtreatment.

None of the bills that have comeclose to passing in the past has amounted to such a "clean bill."

It makes sense to allow the peopleof Alabama to vote on whether they want gambling; after all, that's what ademocracy is all about. But it needs to be a two-fold vote.

First there should be a referendumon whether legalized gambling is desirable or whether it should be eliminatedaltogether -- an advisory referendum only. If a majority says that it isdesirable, then the Legislature needs to come back with a specific bill --hopefully a clean bill such as the one described above -- and the public shouldbe allowed to vote on that as well.

But a vote that simply says"yes, we want gambling" but then leaves it up to the politicians andlobbyists to decide what kind and who gets to run it and how much the publicwill get from it would be an invitation to disaster.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorialwriter and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's website. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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