Katherine G. Robertson, Caleb Crosby: Gaming a bad idea for Alabama

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We have known for months that a deal was in the works to expand gambling operations in Alabama either through a lottery, a tribal compact, or privately run casinos.

Such a move under Republican leadership is disheartening, but not surprising. Any chance at a money grab, be it through tax increases or gambling, is far easier than taking a scalpel to the drivers of the current budget shortfall.

The General Fund woes present a very real challenge for our leaders, but the public is being fed a number of false choices as to how the problem must be solved.

We should not be forced to choose which revenue generator is the least offensive. There are still plenty of good ideas and even bills on the table that would help the state do what the private sector does — scale back spending in a down year. The appeal of easy money through gambling is the idea that those tough decisions can be sidestepped, but not without repercussions.

The Policy Institute’s position on using either of these tactics to generate money for the state has been well- publicized throughout our 25-year history.

The success of lotteries and gambling, of course, depends upon the participation of the poor and vulnerable. The state then becomes addicted to such funding streams, politicians actually desire more, and more individuals and families recklessly spend their money that way. Calls to further expand gambling will become incessant and government will be expanded right along with it.

Simultaneously, Alabama’s leaders will become owned by gaming entities whose power and influence is made possible via money lost by our state’s gamblers. Because of saturated gaming markets, the only people visiting Alabama’s casinos will be Alabamians, especially its poorest. Then local economies will be left to bear the brunt of this bad decision by state leaders.

While casino gaming is being advertised as a job creator, the jobs that typically come with gambling tend to be low-wage positions that, because of falling demand, are short-lived. In the past year alone, two casinos in Mississippi have closed. In Atlantic City, N.J., four casinos have closed or will close soon, including its newest one, the $2.4 billion Revel. Thousands of workers in both states who thought that gambling would be their ticket to success have been laid off.

The irony in all of this is that 20 other states face budget shortfalls. Most of their shortfalls are substantially larger than ours. Guess how many of the “shortfall states” have lotteries? All but one of them. Guess how many have casinos? 14 of them.

Unless a state’s spending problems are fixed — most of which are related to Medicaid, prisons, and public pensions — new revenues can’t keep pace with the rising costs of these services or programs. For instance, Alabama’s share of Medicaid costs has doubled in the past 10 years and shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, the state’s need for more of your money through one mechanism or another will never cease to be necessary.

API has proposed or supported a number of ideas that, if implemented, would help fill the budget gap. We’ve researched and recommended various cost-saving reforms to our public pensions, Medicaid prescription reform, eliminating vacant positions within state government, privatizing ABC and bidding out various nonessential government services, exploring tax amnesty to generate revenue already owed to the state, and bringing health insurance premiums of state employees more in balance with those of private-sector workers. Some of those ideas are making their way through the Legislature and some are not. All of them would be challenging to pass — they are all disfavored by one group or another — but none of them exploit the poor.

Using the excuse of a budget shortfall to pave the way for more gambling is irresponsible. The effects of it would plague our state long past the political careers of those leading the charge.

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Caleb Crosby is president and CEO and Katherine Robertson is vice president for the Alabama Policy Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government, and strong families. If you would like to speak with the authors, please email communications@alabamapolicy.org or call (205) 870-9900.

Note: This column is a copyrighted feature distributed free of charge by the Alabama Policy Institute (API). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author(s) and API are properly cited.  

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