Ken Hare in Depth: Give Alabama voters a real choice on gambling

Ken Hare in Depth: Give Alabama voters a real choice on gambling

It's back.

With Alabama legislators safely past an election year and memories fading of the huge scandal involving legislators the last time gambling legislation came close to passing, a top lawmaker is again proposing that the state turn to expanding gambling to address budget woes.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, plans to introduce legislation that would give Alabamians the opportunity to vote on whether they want a state lottery and casinos that could produce up to $400 million in new revenue for state programs.

DOCUMENT: Draft of casino bill

But before the Legislature adopts this proposal, it should be modified to ensure that Alabama voters get a real choice on if and how to expand gambling in the state.

In a draft of his proposed legislation, Marsh would have voters decide in a referendum if they wanted the state to create a lottery AND to allow casino-style gambling at the four existing dog tracks in Alabama.

In other words, voters would have to allow both a lottery and casinos to get either one.

I would suggest that when voters go to the polls, they should be able to decide if they want a lottery, if they want casinos, or if they want both or neither. That would be easy to do, simply by making each proposal a separate referendum to be voted on at the same time.

The revenue projections are based on a new study by the Institute for Accountability and Government Efficiency at Auburn University of Montgomery.

DOCUMENT: AUM gaming study

According to the study, a lottery and casino gaming would have an annual economic impact of $1.2 billion on the state, would create $400 million in new revenue for state programs and would create more than 11,000 new jobs in Mobile, Birmingham and Macon and Greene counties where gambling operations already exist.

By far the bulk of the $400 million -- about $330 million -- would come from a lottery.

"This is an extraordinary finding by the AUM group and clearly finds that casino gaming and a lottery would have a major economic impact on Alabama," Marsh said. "These two ideas will generate hundreds of millions of new dollars for state programs at a time when essential government services may be cut."

With Alabama facing a serious and long-term budget crisis, it has to be tempting for legislators to look to gambling as a panacea. There is no doubt that the estimated revenue from expanding gambling would help down the road to deal with the chronic funding problems of the state's General Fund. (However, the gambling expansion could not be implemented quickly enough to address the funding shortfall in the budget of the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.)

But -- and there are always some "buts" with gambling -- before turning to gambling to address funding problems, legislators and the public should consider that there are some very real downsides to expanding gambling.

For instance:

-- A dollar spent on gambling is a dollar that is not available to be spent at a car dealership or to buy a washing machine or have dinner out or go see a movie. Sure, some of the money spent on gambling will flow back into the state and local economy through salaries of gambling employees, but far from all of it.

-- Gambling impacts families. Gambling is addictive, and if this expansion is approved, it would be irresponsible for the Legislature not to spend a significant chunk of the new revenue on addiction programs.

But even many of the gamblers who are not technically addicted will gamble away money that should be going to feed their children or pay their rent or other bills. So legislators and the public should expect increased social problems to come hand in hand with gambling.

-- A significant amount of the revenue from expanding gambling should go toward funding a tough regulatory system to protect the interests of gamblers, to ensure that gambling operations are paying all taxes and fees, and to ensure that gambling interests are not a corrupting influence on elected and appointed state officials.

Legislators and voters who consider whether to expand gambling should do so with their eyes open. For instance, they should recognize that expanded gambling, and especially casinos, will cause negative social impacts.

But at the very least, legislators should give Alabamians a real choice in a future referendum. Voters should not be forced to choose whether to have a lottery or casinos as a package deal. They should be able to choose whether to have one, or both, or none.

Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column.

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