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Alabama budget woes: state’s GOP lawmakers look to gambling

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Republicans in both chambers of the Alabama Legislature are looking to gambling as a possible component of a solution to the state’s budget woes.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, filed a bill Tuesday that would authorize a lottery and four casinos. He said it is time to let Alabama voters decide the issue of gambling.

The House Republican Caucus on Tuesday proposed a method to solve the state’s budget problems. It calls for a mix of tax increases, cost-cutting and urging the governor to enter into an agreement with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to share revenue for either expanded or exclusive rights to run electronic bingo machines, which resemble slot machines, in the state.

The stances are a reversal from years past when Republicans as the then-minority party in the Alabama Legislature, largely fought gambling bills brought by Democrats. Alabama is only one of six states without a lottery. Many Republicans fought a 2010 legislation aimed at letting electronic bingo casinos at the dog tracks and other locations stay open in the state.

Marsh said the state is in a dire financial situation.

“We’ve got some decisions to make, and I think it’s right to let the people of Alabama make those decisions. Do we raise taxes or do we find new sources of revenue?” Marsh said at a news conference Tuesday.

Flanked by a sign reading, “Let the people vote,” and showing $400 million in projected revenue projections from gambling, Marsh said Alabamians spend millions of dollars every year supporting casinos and lotteries in other states. Alabama is one of six states without a lottery.

“I think it’s common sense to leave Alabama dollars in Alabama,” Marsh said.

Under Marsh’s bill, the casinos would be located at the state’s four dog tracks in Birmingham, Mobile, Macon County and Greene County. Three-fifths of Alabama legislators and a majority of voters would have to approve the gambling proposal. The governor would not sign the legislation since it is a proposed constitutional amendment.

The House Republican Caucus on Tuesday unveiled a proposal they said involves $200 million in cost-cutting and revenue measures. The proposals include raising the cigarette tax by 25 cents per pack.

House Republicans also endorsed the idea of the state entering into an agreement with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that would require them to pay taxes on revenue from federally protected gaming on tribal lands. A statement from the GOP Caucus said the proposal could provide $250 million up front and recurring revenue in subsequent years.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the proposal only involves electronic bingo games and not casino games. Alabama’s only federally recognized tribe has said that it is interested in either a north Alabama location or exclusive rights to run gambling operations. However, Hubbard and others said only Gov. Robert Bentley could approve such an agreement.

“We talked about the issue in general, not a lot of specifics. It’s going to be in the hands of the governor,” House Rules Chairman Mac McCutcheon, R-Capshaw, said.

Poarch Band Tribal Chairwoman Stephanie A. Bryan said, ‘the only number that is certain at this point is the $265 million deficit in the state’s budget.”

“Like all of Alabama’s citizens, we are worried about the financial crisis facing Alabama. As a working government, we have been consistent in our desire to maintain and improve the quality of life for our Tribal Members, employees, and fellow community members throughout the State. We have gladly answered the call to help many times over the years, and once again we stand ready to be part of the solution to this budget crisis,” Bryan said in a statement.



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