Same song. Same verse.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s study group on gambling policy had its first real meeting on Monday, as the panel, led by former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, got together via Zoom to hear presentations from several anti-gambling advocates.
It was a rehash of the same old kids-will-be-addicts-by-15 scare tactics that we have heard now every time the issue of gambling in Alabama comes up. In fact, it was mostly the same few people, the same stats, the same newspaper clippings and court decisions, the same dire warnings of crime and the same overblown projections of American awfulness if we dare implement a state lottery or expand gambling.
All of which were maybe effective two decades ago, before 40 other states implemented lotteries and dozens of states and Native American tribes opened up casinos, and everyone figured out that the doomsday predictions of prostitutes on every corner and your kids knocking over liquor stores to roll craps at the local riverboat casino weren’t exactly on point.
In fact, if anything, the only real knock on legalized gambling in a lot of locations is that it simply didn’t deliver the revenue that many predicted.
But I guess we have to do this song and dance every time state lawmakers begin the slow march towards considering gambling legislation for real. And that appears to be the case this time.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, lawmakers seemed determined to tackle the issue, and a number of entities, including current dog track owners and the Poarch Creek Indians, have been pushing them.
There is hope of a grand deal — a compromise between the track owners and the tribe — that could lead to a massive expansion of gaming in the state, and possibly usher in up to five full-blown casinos. Just who would get ownership, where those locations would be and how much the state could get are the major details that will determine that deal.
Without it, though, there is little chance that a gambling deal will pass.
In addition to appeasing those two sides of the gambling fight, there is also the necessity for a Republican-led legislature to gain cover for potentially legalizing the sin of ill-gotten gains. In many areas of the state, there is still a resistance to gambling, although recent polling has shown that even conservative Republicans are mostly in favor of gambling expansion, especially if the alternative is increased taxes.
But to give those guys cover, and to make it seem as if the GOP lawmakers are actually covering their bases and hearing from all sides, we have to go through the ridiculous song and dance that occurred on Monday.
How ridiculous was it?
At one point, a professor from the University of Illinois who was invited to speak provided the panel with a newspaper clipping that said 44 percent of Chicagoans want to move. And the professor, without a hint of sarcasm or shame, said those people want to move to Alabama and Georgia because of the lack of gambling.
Which is something you hear all the time, right?
The rest of the presentations could be summed up in a few sentences: People lose money in casinos. Some people are gambling addicts. These are serious problems.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Those are serious issues that have to be considered, but they aren’t exactly surprise issues at this point. You can Google up “gambling addiction rates” and find plenty of information.
But those issues mostly exist in Alabama today. Because gambling exists in Alabama today. We have about 10 legally operating casinos around the state offering electronic bingo games and pari-mutuel wagering.
What we lack, because our lawmakers refuse to properly govern this state, are the programs — paid for through proper taxation included in gambling legislation — to address those very serious issues.
But addressing serious issues wasn’t what Monday’s meeting was about. It was about letting a few anti-gaming mouthpieces have their say. It was about giving cover to a few lawmakers. It was about the appearance of Ivey’s study group doing a “thorough job.”
This issue will only be settled in Alabama when the two sides — the track owners and the Poarch Creeks — come together and make a deal. If and when they do, there is no limit to the amount of gambling that will be tolerated by Alabama’s politicians.
Until then, everything else will be exactly Monday’s meeting.
Just for show.