It looked this week like Alabamians might actually get another chance to vote on a lottery and DeKalb County might benefit from the massive economic development that would come from hosting a casino. But that isn’t going to happen because a bill to pave the way for this fell two votes shy in the Alabama Senate.
The last chance Alabama voters had to decide the matter came in 1999 when the issue appeared on the ballot, failing 54% to 46%. In the 22 years since, we’ve watched lotteries just across the state lines generate billions of dollars for Georgia and Tennessee. Our kids are competing for jobs against graduates from those states; I wonder how many families have chosen to move there so their children can take advantage of HOPE Scholarships.
The Georgia Lottery reportedly contributes an average of $1 million per day to fund pre-kindergarten programs, loan forgiveness programs, to buy computers for schools, and to fund scholarships for college students. I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to Chattanooga in the past decade. Like many of you, I’ve frequently bought a lottery ticket while stopping to fill up with gas.
Some think the worst when a casino is mentioned. We see so many negative stereotypes in movies and TV programs. But I’ve traveled on vacations to Biloxi and Las Vegas, so I know the tourism value these attractions can create. I’m by no means a big gambler -- not on my budget -- but I’ve always considered it a form of entertainment and never spent more than I could afford to lose. That’s the key to avoiding problems, whether you’re talking about gambling, drinking alcohol or too much of anything.
Compulsive gamblers are a legitimate concern, but legalized games of chance are almost everywhere now, so why can’t we direct the money that people are already spending to programs that could actually help our state improve education? Alabama’s Legislative Services Agency estimated a lottery would have raised net revenue of about $200 million to $280 million a year.
Some folks in Montgomery didn’t think their constituents should have a chance to decide for themselves. Our local senators, Steve Livingston and Andrew Jones, voted for the bill after carefully considering all of the findings of a task force report and risking inevitable criticism.
Fort Payne stood a chance of getting a casino operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that would have generated a 20% tax. Almost half of that money would be used to expand access to high speed internet across the state until $1 billion is applied to that effort. The money would have also supported rural health care, mental health care, and the state General Fund. Counties and municipalities would have received portions.
Instead, gambling operations will continue unregulated in our state with none of that money going to programs to help Alabamians. DeKalb Countians will continue driving to Dade County, Ga., to buy lottery tickets, admiring how smooth Interstate 59 feels once you get past all of those rough patches on the Alabama side.
Those legislators who voted against the bill will put off dealing with our state’s many needs for as long as possible, dreading the backlash when their only remaining option is to call for confiscating more of our money in compulsory taxes to fix problems that have become too severe to ignore.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly would have preferred raising money off some out-of-state fat cat flying in to gamble instead of imposing yet another tax burden on working men and women who are already stretched thin financially. It would have been nice seeing those folks going to the new jobs that would have been created, possibly transitioning their skill fixing hosiery mill machinery to fixing slot machines.
Oh well, maybe in another couple of decades we will actually get another chance to have a say.
— Steven Stiefel is the publisher of the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: email@example.com.