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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Alabama's dilemma: choosing between gambling or taxes to plug budget deficit

Alabama's dilemma: choosing between gambling or taxes to plug budget deficit

The debate in the conservative state over asking voters to approve casinos and a lottery as an alternative to raising taxes is producing some unlikely bedfellows

Shining golden casino roulette
The gambling proposal poses an awkward dilemma: ‘You’ve got to understand, whereas Republicans may not favor gaming strongly, they definitely oppose higher taxes.’Photograph: Oleksiy Maksymenko/Alamy
Alabama could be heading for a little bit of Las Vegas. Photograph: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy
Republican state senator Trip Pittman doesn’t buy into the potential benefits of the gambling plan. He plans to filibuster the legislation on the senate floor arguing that it won’t solve the state’s immediate budget needs. Pittman says lawmakers should instead consider alternatives like further streamlining of the state’s retirement costs, capping healthcare spending, and revisiting the use of taxpayer incentives given to private-sector companies.
“Losers gamble,” Pittman says. “If you have a budget problem, you should change things so you don’t end up in the same place. What good are gambling or raising taxes if you don’t change the issues needed to solve the problem.”
Pittman is willing to consider some kind of tax increase and is not alone. Some members of Alabama’s Tea Party, known for steadfast resistance toward taxes, have even suggested potential tax hikes as part of the bigger solution rather than drastic cuts slashing essential programs.

At a recent public hearing, the vice-chair of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal council, Robert McGhee, voiced his opposition to the constitutional amendment that would allow competing casinos to operate in the state. He blasted the measure for its lack of regulations and shortsighted approach.

“That’s like handing your teenager a credit card with no rules attached and then being surprised when you get a bill that, well, looks like Alabama’s budget deficit,” McGhee said at the public hearing.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians have since countered with an enticing proposal: a $250m loan to help cover the budget shortfall. What’s the catch? The tribe would need to become the state’s exclusive gambling partner. A Poarch Band of Creek Indians spokesperson did not return the Guardian’s request for comment.

The full senate and house of representatives still need to sign off on Marsh’s constitutional amendment, which passed through the senate tourism and marketing committee. If lawmakers approve the bill, the constitutional amendment would be placed on the statewide ballot in September.

Some lawmakers, who are bracing for a special session to address the budget needs, have questioned whether the gambling would even solve the immediate deficit.

Alabama’s potential gambling vote would not just determine the outcome of this year’s budget talks.

It would serve as a litmus test of the state’s shifting political spectrum. Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, says residents have become increasingly moderate since the state’s referendum on gaming. With the influence of fundamentalist churches slowly declining, he says younger voters might be open to casinos and a lottery.

“Maybe voters have become more comfortable with that vote,” Bullock says. “Maybe they’ve gone to Mississippi casinos as well as bought lottery tickets in Georgia. Maybe it’s less alien to a share of the electorate today.”

Republican state senator Greg Albritton, who represents a south Alabama district where one of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians bingo casinos is located, questions whether Alabama voters are ready for both forms of gambling at the same time. But there’s one thing he’s willing to wager on: a lively debate on whether blackjack or taxes make the most sense the resolve the state’s funding problems.

“It will be a bloody fight on the floor,” Albritton says. “Will it get through? I don’t know. If it were just a lottery, it’d probably get through. If it were just private gaming, it’d have less of a chance but possible. But with both, I don’t know what will happen.”

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