When the Poarch Band of Creek Indians casino debuted in Wetumpka last month, the hype made it sound like it had almost everything: A 20-story hotel, more than 2,500 gambling machines, five spots to dine, bars, and a 16,000-gallon salt water aquarium.
But it's also worth considering what the new casino doesn't have. It doesn't have a state tax on the gambling that goes on there to bring badly needed revenue into state coffers. Because Native American casinos are created under federal, not state, laws, it doesn't have state regulation of the gambling to protect the interests of the public or the gamblers.
And what Alabamians don't have is the right to say whether they want such gambling in the first place.
Despite promises by many politicians four years ago that Alabamians would have the right to vote on how much and what kinds of legal gambling they would like to have, it hasn't happened yet. And I do not believe that there will be any serious attempts in the upcoming legislative session to give Alabamians the right to vote on gambling.
Why? First, the scandal and the federal trial that came out of the last serious attempt to allow full-scale non-Indian gambling in the state is still too fresh on the minds of legislators. That attempt resulted in a federal probe into the influence of gambling interests on the legislative process. The legislators who were indicted were not found guilty, but the trial focused public attention on the influence of gambling money on the Legislature and politics. I believe many current lawmakers do not want such attention again.
Second, this is an election year for legislators, and in election years legislators like to avoid tackling controversial issues on which the voting public is sharply divided. And the term "sharply divided" perfectly describes the gambling issue in Alabama.
There are those voters who would like to see all gambling go away. Alabamians cannot simply vote not to allow Native American groups to operate gambling facilities while the state allows that same class of gambling for non-Native American groups. So essentially the only way that those Alabamians who oppose Indian casinos can eliminate them is to vote out all types of legalized gambling.
There are those voters who would like to see wide open casinos. And some voters would like to see casinos or perhaps other forms of gambling, but only if they are closely regulated.
Because any legislation to expand legalized gambling will make about as many people angry as it will make happy, don't expect to see it in a legislative election year such as this one.
But eventually there will be another effort to expand legalized gambling. If Alabamians ever get the opportunity to vote on changing legalized gambling, they need to be sure that they fully understand what they are voting on.
The bill that the Legislature allows the public to vote on needs to be a clean bill -- not one that gives a sweetheart deal to those that operate legalized gambling facilities.
The bill that the public is allowed to vote on should be one that does not grant monopolies to a handful of the politically powerful.
It should be a bill that does not have ridiculously low levels of taxation; instead, it should generate at least as much tax revenue for the state of Alabama on a percentage basis as the average nationally in other states that allow gambling.
It should be a bill that prohibits politicians and anyone with criminal connections from being involved in gambling operations, and one that requires every penny of money that goes to a politician from gambling interests either to be directly disclosed publicly or prohibited completely.
And ... this is most important ... one that includes the creation and funding (from gambling revenue) of a strong, statewide regulatory body that can ensure gamblers and the public get fair treatment.
None of the bills that have come close to passing in the past has amounted to such a "clean bill."
It makes sense to allow the people of Alabama to vote on whether they want gambling; after all, that's what a democracy is all about. But it needs to be a two-fold vote.
First there should be a referendum on whether legalized gambling is desirable or whether it should be eliminated altogether -- an advisory referendum only. If a majority says that it is desirable, then the Legislature needs to come back with a specific bill -- hopefully a clean bill such as the one described above -- and the public should be allowed to vote on that as well.
But a vote that simply says "yes, we want gambling" but then leaves it up to the politicians and lobbyists to decide what kind and who gets to run it and how much the public will get from it would be an invitation to disaster.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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