MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It appears that gambling interests are going to continue their push to expand legalized gambling in the state, with the goal of putting a constitutional referendum before the voters to allow both casino gambling and a state lottery as a package deal.
If that happens, the voters of Alabama need to wrestle with some fundamental questions of fairness and the basic role of government before deciding which side to take in this issue. Voters should not decide how they feel in some knee jerk way, because the state may have to live with the decision for decades to come.
The state's elected officials also need to ensure that if gambling is expanded -- and I emphasize "if" -- it is only done in a manner that: A. Maximizes the return to the state's coffers; B. Minimizes the many negative societal impacts of gambling; and C. Includes strong oversight and protections for both the interests of gamblers and other Alabamians.
Before discussing what a gambling bill should look like, let me make this point: Expanded gambling cannot be passed by the Legislature and the voters and implemented quickly enough to address the shortfall in the state's General Fund for the budget year that starts Oct. 1. Because of that, Gov. Robert Bentley is correct not to include the expansion of gambling in his call for the ongoing special session to address the budget. Gambling is a huge issue for the state, one that deserves full and thorough discussion. Gambling interests would like to rush it through in the nine days left in this session, but that would not be wise.
Another point: This debate is not about whether to allow gambling in the state; we have that already, and it is unlikely to ever go away. Frankly, if given the option of having gambling or not having it, my personal choice would be to not have it because it preys on the poor and less educated. But eliminating gambling is not an option I or any other voter in Alabama is likely to get.
Do I support expanding gambling? That's not a question I can answer, and it's not a question any other Alabamian should answer at this point. With gambling, the devil is in the details, and no one knows the details yet.
Which brings us back to what a gambling expansion should look like, if it occurs.
-- A. It should maximize the return to the state's coffers.
Any gambling expansion legislation should tax betting at the average in other states or higher. And here the devil is really in the details. Voters and legislators should not just focus on the rate of taxation, but also on what that rate is applied to. In other words, a 15 percent tax rate on every dollar bet is a lot different than 15 percent applied to what is bet minus payouts or 15 percent of the house take or 15 percent of a gambler's winnings.
-- B. Gambling enabling legislation should minimize the negative societal impacts of gambling.
For instance, there should be guarantees that revenue from gambling will be set aside to address issues of gambling addiction. There should be requirements that lottery managers or casino operators regularly and in plain language advertise widely to explain the high odds against anyone actually winning at gambling in the short term and especially in the long haul. There also should be restrictions on how gambling is advertised and promoted to help ensure that it is not aimed at particularly vulnerable segments of society.
-- C. Gambling should not be expanded unless it includes strong oversight and protections for both the interests of gamblers and other Alabamians.
That should include an independent, non-political, well-funded statewide regulatory body to oversee gambling and protect the interests of the public. It should include laws to require anyone involved with casino ownership or management or lottery management to disclose all financial interests. Laws should bar anyone with criminal ties from ownership or management of a gambling operation, including managing a state lottery. Laws should strictly bar those who own or manage gambling operations in the state from donating to the campaigns of state candidates (especially legislators and the governor) or local candidates in counties where casinos are located. State elected officials and officials in counties where gambling operations are located and members of those officials immediate families should be barred from being employed by or holding a contract with those gambling operations. There should be full public disclosure of what and how a group chosen to manage a state lottery is being paid.
Alabama voters need to know that all of the above issues are being addressed before they approve the expansion of gambling. Otherwise, they are being asked to buy a pig in a poke.
Ken Hare is a former newspaper reporter, editorial page editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Contact him at email@example.com.