Here we go again. Every so many years, an aspiring politician tries to sell Alabamians on the idea that it’s finally time for the state to go all-in on a measure that would change its constitution and allow for legalized gambling.
This time could be different, however, with Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s proposal to institute a lottery and allow slots and casino table games at several dog racing tracks across the state.
But can we admit this isn’t going to be the cure-all for the state’s woes?
Once upon a time, Alabama was more progressive on legalized gambling. In 1971, the Supreme Court of Alabama effectively legalized one form of gambling in part by ruling that betting at dog and horse tracks is constitutional. In that ruling ,the high court argued that dog or horse race gambling was not a game of chance like other forms of gambling. That gave birth to race tracks in Mobile, Birmingham and Macon and Greene counties.
But that’s where it stopped. Aside from the federal government legalizing gambling on Indian lands in 1988, little has changed in the way of gambling in the state.
The problem with Marsh’s lottery and casino push 2.0 is that all of Alabama’s neighbors are already way ahead.
In 1986, Florida voters by a measure of two-to-one voted in a statewide lottery to fund education. Shortly thereafter, in 1990, Mississippi followed suit by legalizing dockside gambling and Biloxi’s Isle of Capri opened its doors in August 1992. That same year, Georgia instituted its own lottery and in 2003, Tennessee to the north got its own lottery.
With some sort of statewide legalized gambling just over the state line in all directions, Alabama missed its shot at a gambling boom.
The story of Greene County, Alabama, is a classic example of how the economics of gambling were a missed opportunity.
Eutaw had its gambling boom and bust. Its dog track, known as Greenetrack, brought in visitors from other states and Greene County, one of the most impoverished areas in the state, benefited. When casino gambling started in Mississippi, the idea of traveling to Alabama to bet on dog racing lost its appeal.
And Greene County is still one of the most impoverished places in the state.
The same can be said for the majority of Mississippi. Gambling improved the state’s Gulf Coast, which until gambling was legalized still suffered from the lingering effects of 1969’s Hurricane Camille. And other parts of the state, like Tunica in the north, have benefited. But beyond that, Mississippi gambling hasn’t exactly changed Mississippi much. It’s still heavily reliant on the federal government and has a debt of $54 billion, slightly less than Alabama’s, but with a population of 2 million fewer people.
It’s not that state leaders haven’t tried. There was the failed effort in 1999 of then-Gov. Don Siegelman, who was beaten by an unholy coalition of church ministers and out-of-state gambling interests.
All these efforts, however, have involved allegations of some sort of corrupt business dealing or questions about the legality of gambling. There was the mass round-up by the feds in 2010 of legislators, lobbyists and gaming center operators. The battle to stake some sort of claim on the potential gaming market in Alabama has been a political bloodbath.
There is one way Marsh can have some success.
Perhaps some of the aspects of his gaming bill are an overreach. Gov. Robert Bentley has made it clear he’s going to oppose this effort.
But all can agree that gambling in Alabama is in dire need of reform. The law needs to be interpreted more clearly. Some of the participants involved in this decades-long fight need legal clarity. And mostly, lawmakers need to do what’s in the best interest of the people of Alabama.
If the Alabama populace wants gambling, be it a lottery or game tables at the dog tracks, then let them vote it in.
Most importantly, don’t oversell it. The causeway between Mobile and Spanish Fort is never going to be the Las Vegas Strip. The state government isn’t going to run budget surpluses from legalized gambling. And if our state legislators thought the government was going to do so, they would find some way to spend that money.
Sen. Marsh might have better luck selling his proposal as a reform measure that would end some of the graft in Montgomery.
As far as the state’s budget is concerned, Gov. Bentley’s tax increase isn’t attracting much support. Maybe there’s a happy medium — some tax increase plus some sort of gambling effort, even if it’s just an education lottery.
It’s an interesting inter-party GOP squabble on how to proceed with gambling and the state’s financial woes. However, here’s an idea for Del Marsh: If you want to win over Gov. Bentley, maybe get former Greenetrack operator Paul Bryant Jr. on board. He’s obviously not opposed to gambling and he certainly knows how to win over Bentley. Just ask those involved with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s now-defunct football program.
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