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Nancy Smith

Revenue-Short Alabama Will Let Voters Decide on Sweeping Gaming Package

May 6, 2015 - 6:00pm

Alabama, where many officials consider the state's gaming opportunities stuck in the Dark Ages, may be ready to make up for lost time.

The leader of the Senate has introduced legislation to create a state lottery, establish casino-style gambling at as many as four locations in Alabama and encourage the governor to enter a gaming compact with the state's only federally recognized Indian tribe.

It's either that or raise taxes, says Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, a Republican.

If Marsh's plan is approved, it will be the first major push for gambling legislation in Alabama in more than five years.

Marsh looks south and sees Florida, essentially running a $5.5 billion-a-year gambling operation, including the Florida Lottery and Seminole Compact. He has framed his proposal a constitutional amendment that will need voter approval as a way to save the state's troubled general fund and avoid the dreaded "T-word."

State officials expect a $250 million shortfall in Alabama's revenues this coming fiscal year, which, like Florida's, begins Oct. 1.

Marsh also pointed to a study his office commissioned Auburn University at Montgomery to do. The study suggested the proposal could create 11,000 new jobs.

"Do we raise taxes or do we find new sources of revenue?" Marsh asked. "We have hundreds of millions of dollars leaving this state to fund gaming facilities in Florida and Mississippi especially.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia already have lotteries, 23 states have commercial casinos, and 28 -- including Alabama - have Indian casinos. Only Hawaii and Utah have no state-sanctioned gambling.

Later Tuesday the Alabama House Republican Caucus endorsed a budget plan that included entering an agreement with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The tribe has had plenty of time to study the Seminoles' success in Florida. Its elders offered to give the state $250 million to address next year's shortfall, but only if its Indian casinos don't have to compete with other commercial casinos.

But legislators can't make that gaming compact happen themselves. Most likely Gov. Robert Bentley, who has endorsed a $541 million revenue plan, will oppose Marsh's. The governor has said gambling will not solve the state's long-term budget problems.

Bentley has made it plain that, in spite of his own "feelings," he would not oppose a referendum that puts the decision in the hands of the voters of Alabama.

But as Florida Gov. Rick Scott is doing with the Seminoles, Bentley would be responsible for negotiating a gambling compact with the Porch Band of Creeks.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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