Let voters decide on Bingo

The youngest member of the Alabama State Senate, 29 year-old Marc Keahey, has undertaken a great task. Early in February, he introduced the Alabama Bingo Control Act, which would let voters decide whether or not to legalize electronic bingo in the state.

Keahey is working with Sen. Roger Bedford, who has proposed similar legislation, to get a compromise version of their two bills to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Then the bill must be approved by the statehouse before finally going to the voters in November. Only after a majority of the state’s electorate votes to approve the plan will it become law.

Keahey says he may never play the games his referendum would legalize. His goal is to simply allow the people to have a say on the issue. In a Democracy such as ours, his is not a radical notion – except in Montgomery, where Republicans fear a gambling amendment on the ballot will increase Democratic voter turnout in elections this November.

Theirs are the usual objections: gambling does not offer a sustainable source of revenue for the state, causes social problems that cost taxpayer dollars, hurts communities, and is morally wrong.

“A lot of people who oppose gambling,” Keahey retorts, “tell me they support my bill because they want to be able to vote on the issue.” He continues, “It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against gambling, this is about letting the people decide.”

To Republicans, though, it does matter. Polls show the voters of the state support legalizing some gambling activities, and if put on the ballot, such a referendum would likely win easily.

The bills Bedford and Keahey have put forward for public referendum would legalize only electronic bingo machines, the devices that have caused such controversy around the state over the past year. At issue is whether the machines, which are connected together in rapid-style bingo games, are slot machines, which are illegal, or games of bingo, which aren’t. Other forms of gambling, such as card tables, would remain prohibited.

Keahey’s bill would also regulate and tax gambling businesses. It would establish eight “points of destination,” including six gambling facilities currently under operation and two more to be determined by a commission. Each gambling developer would be forced to spend at least $100 million to construct their enterprise, with at least $50 million going to non-gambling facilities like hotels and restaurants. No more than eight gambling facilities could be opened statewide.

Operators would have to pay a 28 percent tax on their revenue, and vendors would have to pay a 20 percent tax on the money they collect from the machines they provide to bingo halls.

Currently, no gambling taxes are levied on any of the profits made by electronic bingo, and the state gets no revenue as a result.

If passed by voters, Keahey’s bill would not turn Alabama into a casino Mecca on the scale of Las Vegas, or even Mississippi. However, because Alabamians already cross state lines to gamble in droves, it would keep more of their money, and the jobs and taxes that come with it, instate. Seeing as the state already deals with the social cost of gaming, allowing it to reap the financial benefits seems like a sensible solution.

Not to Governor Bob Riley, who last year created the task force that has pushed gambling legislation to the forefront of the legislative agenda in Montgomery. For the past year, that task force has raided bingo halls around the state. Currently, a number of them remained closed, and thousands of people remain out of work.

In this effort, the Governor and his allies in the legislature appear out of step with Republicans nationwide. In Mississippi, for instance, Governor Haley Barbour has not disrupted the lucrative gambling operations on the coasts of his state. In Florida, Governor Charlie Crist reached an agreement with the Seminoles to allow a casino on their reservation.

Yet, the Governor remains determined. So in this period of high unemployment and proration, the number one issue in Alabama is B-I-N-G-O!

Tray Smith is a freshman majoring in economics. His column runs biweekly on Wednesdays.