No vote on gambling proposal from Senate panel

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The Senate committee on tourism declined to vote Tuesday on legislation to authorize a state lottery and legalize casino-style gaming in Alabama.

Last week, Sen. Del Marsh, committee chair and sponsor of Senate Bill 453, said he expected the committee to vote after Tuesday’s public hearing. Instead, the Senate panel heard extensive debate on the proposal: Eight people signed up to talk in favor of the bill, and nine asked to speak in opposition.

SB 453 has been framed by bill supporters as a means for generating revenue in the state without raising taxes. Those in favor of the bill cited its potential to boost the state economy and that of the communities adjacent to casino properties.

Frank Wendt, president of the Houston County Development Authority, asked the committee to consider expanding the current plan to include placing a casino in Houston County. In his testimony, he said that adding a casino in Houston County would provide $10 million in revenue to state and create more than 1,000 jobs.

However, Katharine Robertson, vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute, pointed out that 20 other states have budget shortfalls even though they have state lotteries. “There is a likelihood of short-term injection in (the) fund,” Robertson said. “But in long-term (gambling) ends up being flat.”

An economic impact report commissioned by Marsh’s office projected that his gambling proposal would bring up to $331 million in total revenue and add as many as 13,000 jobs in Alabama.

Marsh’s proposal is one of four options lawmakers have at this point to overcome the budget shortage. Other options include adopting Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to plug the $541 million shortfall using tax increases, approving a $250 million offer from the Poarch Creek Indians in exchange for exclusive rights to manage gaming, or allowing across-the-board budget cuts that could include the loss of up to 1,000 jobs.

At a news conference last week, Marsh said that his caucus is largely in favor of the bill and his strategy of seeking a constitutional amendment so that the final decision on expanding gaming would be decided by popular vote.

“I’m not hearing a lot of excitement on tax increases,” he said. “What I’m hearing from my caucus is ‘Keep this in play.’”

Marsh said Tuesday that he would review comments and work to improve the bill.

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