Alabama Senate Committee Votes 6-2 to Approve a Referendum after Rancorous Debate
Alabama gambling expansion cleared its first hurdle on Tuesday, though tempers flared in the Alabama Senate during the debate. The dramatic verbel showdown took place in the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee, which voted 6-2 in favorte of holding a state referendum.
According to the Washington Times, the referendum would ask the question whether the state’s residents would like to legalize a state lottery and whether casino-style gaming machines should be installed in the state’s racetracks. Despite the victory in the committee, Senator Del Marsh and fellow proponents of expanded gambling faced heavy criticism.
Dick Brewbaker Laments GOP Attitudes
Sen. Dick Brewbaker, a Republican from Montegomery, questioned the integrity of the process. Just three months ago, a similar bill died in committee, so Sen. Brewbaker questioned why so many people flipped their votes.
Brewbaker said there was a time when “only Democrats” supported gambling in the state. The outspoken state senator was quoted in AL.com saying, “When you’ve got a turnaround of this magnitude, I’m telling you there is something that stinks badly here.”
Del Marsh Cited Budget Deficit
Del Marsh, the senate president and member of the Tourism Committee, would say that a spiraling budget deficit is the main difference in 2015 and 1999, the last time a state lottery was voted on by the citizens of the state (and voted down).
Sen. Marsh told his fellow lawmakers that a gambling bill would bring $400 million in much-needed revenue to the state budget. He also said the bill would have a long-ranging and less well-known advantage, because it would generate 11,000 new jobs in the state of Alabama. Those jobs would be found as gaming attendants at the state’s racinos.
Singleton Accused Brewbaker of Hypocrisy
Answering charges that the gambling bill would “prey on the state’s poor”, Sen. Bobby Singleton took the offensive against Dick Brewbaker. Referring to Brewbaker’s unwillingness to take alternative measures to help the state’s poor, Sen. Singleton, a Democrat from Greensboro, said of his fellow committee member, “You don’t care nothing about poor folk.”
In a more pointed comment, Sen. Singleton accused Dick Brewbaker of “hypocrisy”.
Marsh and Brewbaker Debate
Sen. Del Marsh also sparred with Brewbaker, though their discussion was a little more civil (as they are both Republicans). Marsh told Brewbaker that the special session’s goal is to find a way to make up the $225 million deficit is being taken out of the General Fund for the education system, but that money needs to be paid back to the state budget.
Del Marsh said that deficit had to made up in some way and taxes on gambling revenues were the best way he knew how to make up the difference. Republicans tend to be quite reluctant to raise taxes, so an indirect revenue source like gaming revenues is seen by many as preferable.
Marsh added, “The people understand that this is an option that needs to be out there.”
Three Stages to Gaming Expansion
Under Del Marsh’s new gaming bill, the state’s expansion of gambling would happen in three stages. First, the bill would create the Alabama Lottery Corporation. Second, the bill would authorize gaming machines for already-existing private racetracks in four locations around the state: Mobile, Birmingham, Greene County, and Macon County.
Three, the bill would authorize Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to negotiate a gaming compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to place slot machines and new gaming tables in their 3 tribal casinos in the state. The Poarch Band have a casino gaming monopoly at the moment and have lobbied to maintain their monopoly. The compact negotiation would be a means of giving the Poarch Band of Creek Indians concessions in return for the competition created by the private racinos.
Alabama Jobs Foundation Poll
One reason the proponents of gaming expansion in Alabama have regained their energy is the recent creation of the Alabama Jobs Foundation, a group lobbying for the state lottery. The Alabama Jobs Foundation is led by several executives in the state, while former Auburn head football coach Pat Dye also joined their group.
The AJF recently released a poll which showed 89% of Alabamians want a statewide vote on gambling expansion. 80% want a lottery to raise funds for education. 69% want a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling, while 66% do not want taxes raised to meet the budget deficit. Those numbers might very well have turned heads in the Alabama Senate, because they are a stark contrast with previous assumptions.
Keeping Money in the State
Meanwhile, Sen. Del Marsh has been tireless in his advocacy of the lottery and racino bill. Marsh said previously, “It is time that Alabama dollars stayed right here in Alabama, creating new jobs for our workers, creating new investments for our businesses, and expanding tourism and opportunities for our towns and cities. We can achieve all that without raising taxes.”
At present, many Alabama gamblers simply cross the border into Mississippi to gamble in Gulfport, Biloxi, or Tunica. Marsh sees no reason for Alabama to make a principled stand which simply allows cash to flow out of the state, which is why he often says he wants that money to stay in Alabama.
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