Long before he began experimenting wildly with plastic surgery, and even before the glint of a failed roasted chicken franchise sparkled in his eyes, country singer Kenny Rogers had some words of wisdom that could serve Gov. Robert Bentley well today.
For a taste of the governor’s whiskey, I’m sure Rogers would be happy to tell him he should know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run. Now, while that advice may seem far too catchy to actually be useful, if you dig deep, what Rogers was offering in his hit song “The Gambler” was nothing more than a full-fledged endorsement of casino gaming and a lottery in the state of Alabama.
Perhaps I’m affording Kenny a bit more prescience than he deserves given the aforementioned plastic surgery issues and chicken franchise troubles, but I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the darkness Kenny’s final words could offer Bentley an ace that he can keep and the state a chance to do more than break even. Namely, it’s time for the governor to quit playing coy and get behind the idea that gaming could offer this state the type of revenue boost it will most certainly deny itself via either tax increases or reform.
As was proven recently in Baldwin County, ask Alabamians to go to the polls and vote for a tax increase and there’s a good chance that not only won’t you get it, they’ll probably take away some of what’s already there. That’s the part where Dr. Governor should know when to fold ’em. Bentley has picked some rather arbitrary places to raise taxes — car sales and cigarettes, to name a couple — but overall asking the people of this state if they’d like to raise taxes is a lot like asking a 6-year-old if he’d like green beans sprinkled on his Moosetracks ice cream.
Right now the state faces a $290 million shortfall in next year’s budget and Bentley is trying to get the Legislature to agree to a $540-million tax package that would raise taxes on cigarettes and car sales, among other things. Legislators don’t appear particularly interested in passing new taxes, though, which has the Gov. threatening them with spending some warm summer’s eves in Montgomery while the kids are home shooting bottle rockets at each other.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh is offering a bill that would create a state lottery and also allow Class III casino gaming — table games and slots — at four dog tracks around the state. And the Poarch Creek Indians have stepped in to wave a quarter of a billion bucks under the state’s nose if they can essentially be guaranteed a monopoly on gambling in Alabama from here on out.
Marsh cites an Auburn University study estimating an income of roughly $400 million more a year if the state implements Class III gaming at the four dog tracks and starts a lottery. The study says $330 million of that would come from the lottery alone, but the additional gambling should produce more than 11,000 jobs statewide.
But there was immediately at least one possible hole in the study according to the Poarch Creeks — they own Mobile’s Greyhound Park and wouldn’t allow Class III there because it would take away from their casino in Atmore. So the proposal wouldn’t get Mobile a full-fledged casino, but still might bring in big bucks for the state.
Bentley remains unconvinced, though. He called Marsh’s plan “one of the worst bills I have ever seen” and said it “makes Alabama look like Las Vegas.” I suppose it’s debatable as to whether that’s a good thing or not, depending upon your feelings about Vegas, but I have a feeling Kenny would be getting excited about the possibilities.
It’s a little hard to take Bentley’s fear of the Las Vegasization of the state seriously when you can look just next door and see the gaming industry that’s thrived in Mississippi for 20 years hasn’t dramatically changed the state’s character and charm. It has made Biloxi a pretty exciting place and allowed Ocean Springs to blossom, but mostly what it’s done is help make the state more financially sound.
The idea that we should count on people smoking as a means to help fill financial gaps, but that gambling is somehow an unthinkable sin, is illogical. Yes, some people can get addicted to gambling. Almost all smokers are addicted. And nobody ever got cancer from gambling.
This whole debate looks a lot like a game of Texas Hold ’Em to me. When you see what’s happening with Alabama’s budget it’s clear something’s gotta give. A lottery and casinos make the most sense given there is no backbone for raising taxes or restructuring property taxes in the state.
I’m not so sure the Gov. isn’t bluffing anyway. A cynic might think coming to the Legislature with such a huge tax increase plan is an easy way to get the folks on Goat Hill running feverishly towards gambling. If it is a bluff, it’s worked. If it’s not a bluff … well, Bentley, I can see you’re out of aces.
It’s easy to think about what it might mean if the GM&O Building or the empty Cruise Terminal could be turned into a full-fledged casino. Or what about that swank new convention center the state is building right on the Gulf? Atlantic City could never compete with the sugary white sands of Baldwin County.
Maybe that’s all just daydreaming, as Marsh’s bill hasn’t been voted on yet and would still need to pass a statewide referendum to become law. It’s an uphill battle.
Still, I have to think the governor’s current tax proposal is essentially a train bound for nowhere and sooner or later he’s going to have to get on board some sort of gaming proposal.