Panelists debate gaming legislation in Mobile

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Mobile news station WJTC/UTV 44 held the state’s first public forum on the issue of increased gaming since Sen. Del Marsh introduced legislation Tuesday. Marsh’s bill would create a state lottery and allow casino-style gaming in four Alabama locations.

Included on the panel were three participants whose groups have publicly spoken against the bill and Prichard City Councilman Lorenzo Martin, who expressed his support for allowing the public to vote on the issue.

Panelists included:

  • John Hill, senior analyst for the Alabama Policy Institute;
  • Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling;
  • Prichard City Councilman Martin; and
  • Robert McGhee, government relations adviser and treasurer of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal council.

An early question asked the potential for more gambling addictions. Bernal framed the discussion with strong criticism of any state policy based on gaming: “When you use gambling for profit, it becomes predatory because the business model is about exploiting people. You’re letting them spend far beyond their means. And the idea that state government would be partners in that is unjust and wrong.”

Bernal pointed to examples in Florida and Georgia of state-run lottery programs intended to help all residents, but end up paid for by the state’s poorest communities.

“The poorest counties in Georgia bought the most tickets, but the wealthiest counties got the benefit of the programs,” he said. “Middle class families in Georgia don’t have to save for their kids’ education, because they know the poor will pay for it.”

McGhee, though, said  Indian gaming has made a positive difference in the Native American community. McGhee said that his tribe spends millions of dollars year from Indian casinos on education and county repairs, like roads. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians he represents propose an alternative to the current bill that would include a one-time payment to the state in exchange exclusive gaming rights.

He said much of the tribe’s gaming revenue goes toward paying its share of federal health care and education benefits for tribe members. He warned that the strict federal gaming regulation that Poarch Creek follows is missing in the current legislation.

“Our current concern is that legislation has no regulatory process in place. They don’t tell you how they’re going to pay for that regulatory process. There are a lot of unanswered questions.

“The current legislation is not good for the state of Alabama. They tell you all these jobs will be created, but they don’t tell you how.”

Many audience questions asked about lack of clarity in the proposal, specifically on where the projected proceeds from the gaming proposal would be directed. Martin echoed that concern, saying that proceeds should go to heal disadvantaged minority neighborhoods and to encourage community revitalization.

Hill countered with his belief that a lottery would do little to overcome the budget deficit or address community concerns.

“I have very little faith in the ability of our legislators to keep their word on this,” Hill said. “Even if we raised $100 million in gambling revenue this year or next year, we’re not solving the problems of the government spending too much or living within its means. Three or four years from now, these problems are going to come back, they’re going to be worse than ever, and we won’t have gambling to fall back on.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “none of the lottery proposals out there would help anybody’s issues here at all.”

As the discussion turned to a recommendation from Marsh and the House Republican caucus that Gov. Robert Bentley pursue a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians,  McGhee said the tribe is most interested in establishing a positive partnership with the state.

“We provide government programs to our members and our constituents, like health care and educational scholarships. And we employ more than 5,000 employees throughout the state,” McGhee said. “We want to be better partners with the state and to be able to help Alabama with its fiscal and financial problems, but can only do that with a vote.”

Marsh’s proposed Senate Bill 453 is a constitutional amendment that requires a popular vote. In a press conference on Tuesday, Marsh urged the governor to allow the proposal to be put up for vote in September.

Martin echoed his support for allowing voters to decide on whether to expand gaming in Alabama. “Stop gambling with our lives, with our education, with our health, and with our public school systems,” Martin said. “There are so many things that people are being held back from because they’re impoverished. Let’s vote and make a decision on where you want to go.”

Viewers took to Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #YourVoiceYourFuture to weigh in on the discussion. Here are some of their comments:

LIVE NOW Town Hall: Alabama State Lottery. Do you support a lottery in Alabama? Join in on the discussion and post your…

Posted by Local 15 NBC News, WPMI Mobile on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

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