Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Craig Ford: Alabama needs a real answer to the gambling question

  Decisions made by the government and high profile court rulings consumed the news last week. Most of the breaking news has centered on the U.S. Supreme Court decisions. But there is one court ruling that hasn’t gotten as much attention, and it’s just as important to the people of Alabama because it has such a huge impact on the future of our state.

  Late last week, an Alabama circuit judge ruled that the state was wrong to “cherry-pick” the casinos it prosecuted (and I think “persecuted” would be more accurate), and that the state must return all the seized money and bingo machines. The case was brought by VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor, and the judge’s ruling means that VictoryLand is once again free to open its doors.

  With VictoryLand opening back up, state leaders can no longer afford to ignore gambling or keep kicking the can down the road. Now more than ever we must pass legislation that addresses the issues of gambling, making sure that gambling interests are competitive and pay taxes on their profits just like every other business in Alabama. We need to keep Alabama dollars in Alabama instead of sending that money to Georgia, Tennessee or Florida to play their lotteries and send their kids to college.

  Gov. Robert Bentley has previously said he will not include gambling in the call for a special session. Now that the court has made this ruling, I hope the governor will reconsider his position. We can’t afford to keep putting this issue off! Furthermore, I believe a gambling bill could allow us to get out of this budget crisis without passing the Republicans’ tax package (the “RTP”). That’s why, regardless of whether the governor includes gambling in the call, I will introducing a gambling bill in the special session.

  Some legislators may argue that since Attorney General Luther Strange filed an appeal of the decision on Friday, we need to wait for the state Supreme Court to decide on the issue before the legislature takes action. But I believe we cannot sit back and wait to act. The casinos are opening back up, so sooner or later we are going to be forced to act. And at a time when tax dollars are already stretched as far as they possibly can be, I don’t believe the attorney general should waste more tax dollars fighting the court’s ruling.

  The circuit court judge was not wrong in his decision. The state has unfairly “cherry-picked,” as the judge pointed out, which casinos it wanted to prosecute. It’s time for the state to move on, and way past time for state leaders to stop wasting the taxpayers’ money prosecuting these casinos, all of which are legally operating businesses!

  We all know the state is in financial trouble. If we act now, instead of waiting, a gambling bill could prevent the tax increases in the RTP. If we pass a gambling bill, casinos like VictoryLand could potentially start paying application and licensing fees, as well as taxes on profits, as soon as October. Those fees and taxes could generate hundreds of millions in revenue for the state, which would allow us to avoiding raising taxes.

  This isn’t just my opinion, either: Poll after poll has shown that the people of Alabama prefer bringing a gambling bill to a vote instead of the RTP. That’s why former Auburn Football Head Coach Pat Dye and other prominent state business leaders have created an organization to promote casinos and a state lottery.

  And even within the Republican leadership, Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) leader of the state senate, and Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Dothan) chair of the House Ways and Means—General Fund Budget Committee, have sponsored and co-sponsored gambling legislation and the creation of a state lottery. The support for this type of legislation is there across the board. Now is the time to pass a bill and let the people vote!

  Sticking our heads in the sand is not working. The gambling “issue” is not going to simply go away. Alabamians gamble. Alabamians play lotteries in other states. Our state government has failed to stop gambling. So before we raise taxes and waste taxpayer money fighting to stop gambling, let’s tax gambling and save taxpayer money!

  Gambling may be a poor way to fund government in some people’s minds, but the gambling interests should still have to pay their fair share, just like every other business in the state. If they do, and the state acts quickly enough, we can avoid passing the RTP that is on the horizon and legislators can honor their campaign pledges not to raise taxes.

  If we don't address gambling, gambling interests will continue to go untaxed, the state will continue to have an unbalanced budget, and the hard working people of Alabama will see their taxes increased.

  About the author: Representative Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.

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