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Opinion | Gov. Ivey is right about gambling. Now, fix it.

Ivey has been outspoken about wanting to fix the gambling problem in this state. Now is the time.

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Kay Ivey is right about gambling. 

I don’t type those words a whole lot – that Gov. Ivey is right about a political issue. She’s not a terrible human or anything, it’s just that we happen to hold very different political beliefs and I don’t typically find her solutions to the issues facing Alabama to be the correct approaches. 

But on this issue – on Alabama’s never-ending dance with comprehensive gaming laws – we agree. On pretty much everything, right down to the frustration with the immobility of it all. 

This week, two of the state’s longest-operating casinos – VictoryLand in Macon County and GreeneTrack in Greene County – announced that hundreds of employees will lose their jobs. VictoryLand is scaling back business after a recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling and GreeneTrack is closing permanently after a separate ruling. 

Hundreds of people in two of the state’s poorest counties are without jobs now. Long-running businesses are either closed or teetering on the brink of closure. And in the meantime, gambling is flourishing at locations all across Alabama. 

It’s utter insanity. 

So, when Ivey’s spokesperson, in response to the details of the GreeneTrack ordeal – an ordeal that has forced that casino to close while three others in the county remain open – says that it’s all further “evidence of a broken, piecemeal system in need of transformational overhaul,” well, I couldn’t agree more. 

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It’s idiotic, what we’re doing. And the truly insane thing is that everyone knows it. 

Right now, in Alabama, there are multiple casinos offering gambling. Some offer electronic bingo, some historical horse racing, some paper bingo or other similar games. We have operational dog tracks. We have legalized daily fantasy sports wagering. There are poker rooms operating. Everyone knows a bookie or two. And millions of dollars flow out of this state every month to lotteries and casinos in surrounding states. 

And somehow, Alabama fails to make a penny off of any of this gambling by Alabama residents. 

Not because it doesn’t exist or because we’re somehow fighting back against gambling interests. Nope. It’s because our lawmakers, over the course of several decades, due to nothing more than self-interest and political perseverance, have been wholly incapable of passing legislation that legalizes and taxes certain gaming, outlaws other types of gambling, licenses operators and establishes an entity to regulate it all. 

Pretty much every other state in the union has managed it. States with Native American casinos have done it. States with high concentrations of evangelicals have done it. Hell, even Mississippi has done it.  

But not us. 

Instead, we’ve got a bunch of politicians and lobbyists padding their campaign accounts and personal accounts by keeping this never-ending saga going, and we’ve got a whole bunch of judges and law enforcement officials who have been all too happy to play along. Not a single one of them really concerned about the greater good or the true right and wrong of it all. 

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These people have, at times, vilified the casino owners – making them out to be Godfather-like criminals pulling the strings on lucrative, shady enterprises that threaten the moral fabric of the state. 

But the truth is – as anyone who’s spent 15 minutes around this ordeal can tell you – the casino owners might be the most honest players in this game. 

They’ve never hidden their motivations or intentions. They’ve never tried to make up laws. They’ve never pretended to be anything other than businessmen who are trying to compete. 

In the meantime, a handful of powerful people and groups of easily-bought lawmakers have pulled every trick in the book to keep us locked in gambling purgatory – in this weird, counterproductive scenario where there’s literally gambling all around us every single day but the state and its citizens see no benefits. 

Consider this: In order to operate electronic bingo games – the same games played in Native American casinos – the owners of VictoryLand and GreeneTrack had to see a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature and the voters, apply for a license and work with an authorized charity. The games had to be inspected and approved by the sheriffs in the counties to meet federal standards and ensure they weren’t operating as slot machines. 

They did all of that. 

And in response, our elected leaders – our state’s highest judges – just made up laws to turn them into criminals. 

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That’s not hyperbole. 

Alabama’s gambling laws are like no other state’s. The laws applying to bingo and electronic bingo are unique only to us, and wholly different than the definition used by the federal government and accepted in dozens of other states. 

Alabama’s tax laws in relation to gambling – as interpreted, again, by our highest court – are also unique to us. No other state or country in the world, as far as I can find, applies taxes to machine credits as though the credits are actual dollars inserted into the machine. But Alabama does – or at least it has to one specific casino in Greene County, charging it a rate greater than 100 percent and forcing its closure last week. 

And yet, some of you believe that it is the casino owners who are the shady characters in this ordeal. 

The simple fact is this fight would have been over long ago and Alabama likely would have had a fair gambling regulatory system in place had certain groups not abused the courts and their power in an attempt to crush gambling interests that they viewed as political opponents. What they did, though, was create a never-ending fight that benefits only themselves and a handful of lobbyists and lawyers, while leaving all the rest of us to watch scholarship dollars and healthcare funding and education expenses go poof. 

Some might call that a broken, piecemeal system that is in desperate need of transformational overhaul. And if you do, and you also happen to be the governor, and there also happens to be a fair, popular, comprehensive piece of gambling legislation floating about the legislature that would fix pretty much all of these issues … 

Maybe you should make a real, serious push to fix the problem. 

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Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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