By Susan Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) held a public hearing on his gaming bill, SB453 on Tuesday, during the meeting of the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee.
Marsh said, “We are looking at being faced, possibly with an excess of $500 million in taxes, or receiving revenue from the gaming industry that is currently in the State. That’s the reason I think this option has to be on the table.”
Marsh said that the people of this State can ultimately vote on this or they will have to raise taxes.
Marsh’s bill would allow Class III gaming in seven existing locations in Alabama. The bill also includes a statewide lottery. It is estimated that legalizing and taxing gaming will bring approximately $300 million annually into state coffers. Should it pass through the Legislature, it would still require a vote of the people to make it a constitutional amendment.
Many present, who were proponents, were from Houston County, Macon County, others were business owners, and council members.
Most of the opponents were spiritual leaders and others concerned about the social issues they say accompany gambling, with the exception of Robert McGhee, who spoke on behalf of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
Bob Hendricks, executive director of the Dothan Area Business and Visitors Bureau and former advisor to the House Tourism Committee, said, “I am here to talk to you about considering one more facility: HEDA. Houston County Economic Development Authority.” HEDA manages Center Stage, formerly known as Country Crossing. “It’s a $100 million facility that is already in the ground with a 10,000 seat amphitheater, 100 yards off of Hwy 231,” said Hendricks. He said that a poll conducted by the Dothan Eagle showed that 81 percent of Houston County residents would cast a positive vote for gambling.
Dr. Joe Godfrey, an opponent of gaming, said, “I keep hearing that it is either taxes or gambling. I am here to remind you that gambling is a tax. In fact, it is the worst kind of tax. It’s a tax on the poor. It preys on those that are least able to afford it.”
Frank Wynt, president of HEDA, said, “Houston County is a ways from the other facilities, so it would not take away from their revenue. It is close to Florida and Georgia so a lot of the dollars would be coming into Alabama.”
Tim Hawkins, long time resident of Dothan, said that he is a struggling business owner. He said that Houston County doesn’t have the infrastructure required to draw large industry. He said that they have fought long and hard for electronic bingo over the years. He asked the committee to amend Houston County into the list of locations.
Robert McGhee, vice chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and head of the Tribe’s Government Relations Department said:
“We want to help Alabama with its financial woes, but SB453 does not solve that problem. It makes it worse…It is the backwards thinking that opens the door for irresponsible practices that will be hard to rein in after the fact.”
McGhee said that the Alabama Government has trouble paying for the operations that it has and that adding three new government entities [gaming committees created by the bill] would only add to the problem. He said that the Tribe believes making changes to the State’s most important document should be done with great care, foresight and laser precision. He said that Marsh’s bill is taking the “rushed” approach.
Sen. Harri Anne Smith (I-Dothan) said, “I stand before you today asking you, please, when you look at voting on this issue to consider the package that has been given to you from my home community of Houston County…For years we have fought with others in the area to have the opportunity to be legal and to make this facility [Center Stage] a part of producing revenue to help with our deficit and to help support our troubled budget. We don’t have an interstate in our area and we have had a hard time trying to recruit business. This facility will provide much needed jobs and our people need those jobs.”
After hearing all of the concerns of the speakers, Marsh said that the committee would not vote on the bill at that time. He said that he would like to incorporate some of the suggestions and address some of the concerns, so he was not willing to move forward on the bill until those were included.
Later, when asked about the short legislative calendar, since this is a revenue generating bill, Marsh replied, that the bill may come back to committee as soon as Wednesday.
The bill is scheduled to appear in committee again on Thursday at 9:30 a.m.