Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Craig Ford: Opposing gambling legislation protects gambling interests not the people

  The people of Alabama deserve the right to vote on gambling and the lottery. What they don’t deserve is to see their taxes go up.

  Last week, Gov. Robert Bentley announced that he would not include any gambling proposals in the call for a special legislative session later this year. I believe Governor Bentley is wrong to refuse to include gambling in the call for a special session, and I will introduce a gambling bill when the legislature returns to Montgomery.

  There are only two options for getting our state out of this budget crisis: either raise taxes or let the people vote on gambling. It seems the governor has chosen taxes. But nothing will happen without the legislature agreeing to it, and I don't think too many legislators want to break their campaign promises and raise taxes.

  Opponents of the lottery and expanded gambling say it is a “bad way to finance government” and that they are protecting the people and the state from the negative impacts of gambling. But their arguments ignore the reality of what is going on in Alabama.

  People in Alabama gamble. They do it every day. Drive by the casinos in Atmore or Wetumpka, or the casinos in Mississippi with all those cars with Alabama license plates in the parking lots, and you can see the evidence. But right now, the gambling interests in Alabama don't pay taxes on their profits like every other business has to do.

  Alabamians also play the lottery. But instead of playing it here, where the proceeds would go to benefit our own state, they're playing it in other states. Just a few years ago, one of Tennessee’s top-selling lottery outlets estimated that 60-65 percent of its business comes from Alabama lottery players.

  Whether we like it or not, Alabamians are spending their money on gambling. State leaders have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of hours of law enforcement’s time trying to fight gambling, but gambling still takes place in Alabama every single day.

  I deeply respect Governor Bentley, and have no doubt that he believes opposing a gambling bill is protecting the people of Alabama. But opposing a gambling bill isn't protecting the people of Alabama. It's protecting gambling! It's protecting the gambling interests from competition and paying taxes on their profits, and sending millions of our dollars to other states to play their lotteries instead of keeping that money here in Alabama.

  Leaders throughout the state and on both sides of the political aisle are starting to agree that it's time to let the people vote! The leader of the state Senate, Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston), introduced a gambling bill during the legislative session. Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), the chairman of the House Ways and Means - General Fund committee, co-sponsored one of the lottery bills that I introduced. And last week, former Auburn football coach Pat Dye and business leaders from around the state announced they are forming an organization to support casinos and a state lottery.

  The time has come to let the people vote! And that is why, despite the governor’s objections, I will introduce a comprehensive gambling bill in the special legislative session. And if three-fifths of legislators support it, we can pass it even if the governor refuses to include it in the agenda for the special session.

  Some people argue that it’s too late for a gambling bill to help with the budget crisis. But I disagree. If we hurry, we could pass the bill in time to put it on the ballots this August when many voters are already going to the polls to vote in local municipal elections (thereby saving some of the costs of a special election). If passed by the people, a gaming commission could be set up in September, and we could start collecting licensing fees and tax revenue from casinos just in time for the new budget to go into effect, which would allow us to avoid the budget crisis.

  The people of Alabama deserve the right to vote on gambling and the lottery. What they don't deserve is to see their taxes go up. Alabamians already gamble and play the lottery. Alabamians are going to gamble whether the government likes it or not. But right now, the casinos aren't paying taxes on their profits like every other business in Alabama has to pay, and our neighboring states are making millions of dollars off of Alabamians playing their lotteries when most of that money could be staying here.

  So here we are, four months after the governor’s State of the State Address, and we are still asking the same question we asked before the legislative session began: Would you rather have gambling and a lottery, or the Republicans’ tax increases?

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

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