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Will Alabama get gambling?

GamblingGambling: Will Alabama get gambling?

One of the biggest stories in the South over the past 13 years is the transformation of the conservative Bible Belt into a hotbed of legalized gambling.

Mississippi and Louisiana opened dockside and land-based casinos. Lotteries sprang up in Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina and Louisiana, joining Florida, which established its lottery in 1986.

Alabama remains the lone holdout for state-regulated gambling, although the state does have Indian casinos and wagering at dog tracks. Plans for a state lottery were defeated in 1999 and some political observers blamed the lottery push for causing Gov. Don Siegelman to fail in his re-election bid last year.

With the recent defeat of a $1.2 billion tax plan pushed by Gov. Bob Riley and a looming deficit of more than $500 million, some legislators say it's time for Alabama to pass a gambling bill.

Rep. John Rogers Jr., a Birmingham Democrat, said he will introduce a bill in February amending the state constitution to allow casinos to come to Alabama.

"We're surrounded by gaming states," said Rogers. "Our people are crossing the border in droves to gamble. We need to stimulate the tide to help out our own state."

Rogers wants to see a limited number of casinos established only in Alabama's largest cities: Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville. He said the revenues from gambling halls will easily pull the state out of its deficit.

"I feel real good about this thing being passed," he said. "The one thing we can do to solve the budget problems is voluntary taxation."

But Natalie Davis, a political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College, said it will be difficult for gambling legislation to pick up widespread public support.

"There's something of a culture war going on here," Davis said. "Those who have fundamentalist Christian views are not going to come close to supporting gambling."

Race also plays a factor. Davis said there is a good deal of support for casino gambling in the Black Caucus, while most of the strongest gambling opponents are white.

"There's also a sleaze factor," Davis said. Milton McGregor, a dog track owner who has been the strongest gambling supporter in Alabama, made more than $1 million in campaign contributions during the past two statewide elections, leading to the charge he was attempting to buy the Legislature.

"You put those three things together and it looks very difficult to get a gambling bill passed," Davis said.

Sen. Larry Dixon, a Republican from Montgomery, said he expects gambling legislation to take up an inappropriate amount of time in the Legislature.

"It's a full employment issue for lobbyists," he said. "All of the lobbyists are either on one side of gambling or the other." Mississippi casinos are involved in the lobbying, urging legislators to keep casinos out of Alabama, Dixon said.

Dixon had been an opponent of gambling but now that the Creek Indians have two video gambling halls in his district, his stance has changed. But Dixon said he won't approve a gambling bill that brings in $20 million in gambling proceeds for the state Department of Human Resources "when we end up spending five times that amount on the social costs of gambling."

"If they come out with a fair plan that has a good gaming commission to regulate it, I would rethink everything," Dixon said.

Sun Herald

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