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Alabama Considers Legalized Gambling To Close Budget Deficit


Many states in the U.S. are dealing with big budget deficits, and here's just one example of the kinds of decisions lawmakers have to make. In Alabama, where the financial picture is dismal, Republican leaders are touting ideas that once seemed implausible in a conservative Bible Belt state. This includes raising taxes and legalizing gambling. Here NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Alabama Governor Robert Bentley takes a tour of a youth mental hospital in Mobile.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have about 36 kids that are here today.

ROBERT BENTLEY: Now, all of them are inpatient right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: These are all inpatient kids. The average stay is seven to 10 days.

ELLIOTT: The governor is here because facilities like this face closure under an austere budget approved by the Alabama House. Bentley is proposing another fix - a tax hike.


BENTLEY: You know, it's not easy for a conservative Republican governor to stand before any group and say we need to raise taxes.

ELLIOTT: Bentley, now in his second term, has been traveling the state to push for his $500 million tax plan, which eliminates some corporate tax breaks and imposes higher levies on tobacco, rental cars and car tags. Back in Montgomery, legislative leaders have different ideas. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh...

DEL MARSH: I introduced a piece of legislation dealing with gaming, which I know is unusual for a Republican.

ELLIOTT: His bill would create a state lottery. It would also allow casino-like games at dog tracks. Voters would have to approve both.

MARSH: People asking me, well, aren't Republicans against gaming? Well, typically, yes, you're correct. But I know what they're definitely against - that's raising taxes.

ELLIOTT: Some Republicans are not pleased with either option. Senator Bill Hightower of Mobile says this is not what a GOP super majority should look like.

BILL HIGHTOWER: It seems as if, with more Republicans, we find ourselves having a more difficult time finding who we are and moving forward.

ELLIOTT: Hightower says there's no appetite for the governor's tax hike, and he says expanding gaming is ill-advised, given a bribery scandal involving gambling interest rocked the State House back in 2010.

HIGHTOWER: We had wiretaps going up and down the hall, and people were being indicted. I mean, what are we doing?

ELLIOTT: Alabama's budget woes are due in part to the growing cost of Medicaid and funding prisons. The state has declined federal funds to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. The deficit is forecast to be at least 200 million and up to $540 million. In the past, lawmakers have turned to one-time fixes to shore up a general fund budget that hasn't kept up with the state's needs. Katherine Robertson, vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, says the governor and Senator Marsh are presenting Alabama voters with a false choice.

KATHERINE ROBERTSON: We don't feel like we're at a point where we have to choose which is the least offensive way to generate revenue.

ELLIOTT: Robertson says it's time to address structural problems with Alabama's budget, including eliminating earmarks, but attempts to do that have failed in the past. Kimble Forrister, director of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for the poor, says House-passed budget cuts of 5 to 9 percent would be devastating to key state agencies, including Medicaid.

KIMBLE FORRISTER: I'm not sure they'll still be viable.

ELLIOTT: Forrister says there's just one way out of the budget hole.

FORRISTER: We've got to have new taxes. We just - we are not bringing in enough money to pay our bills.

ELLIOTT: If money is all the state needs, Alabama's Poarch Band of Creek Indians are offering up yet another solution. At the tribe's Wind Creek Casino in Atmore, people play electronic games that look like slot machines you might find in Las Vegas, but it's bingo.

Alabama's only federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creeks operate three electronic bingo casinos. Because the tribe is a sovereign entity, the state reaps no revenue. Now, they're offering $250 million to bail out the state budget, but there are strings attached.

ROBERT MCGHEE: In order for a revenue-sharing agreement to occur, you actually have to give us something to get something.

ELLIOTT: Tribe Vice Chairman Robert McGhee says they'd like to negotiate an exclusive deal.

MCGHEE: Why don't you sit down with the tribe, see how we can work together to address this issue, instead of expanding gaming throughout the state of Alabama?

ELLIOTT: The Poarch Creeks are proposing a compact that would prevent dog tracks from having other forms of gambling and would allow the tribe's casinos to add table games like roulette and blackjack. But Governor Robert Bentley, who would have to negotiate such a compact, says he's not interested.


BENTLEY: Gambling is not the answer.

ELLIOTT: He's sticking by his tax plan.


BENTLEY: Gambling always takes advantage of a crisis, and that's what they're doing right now. We're better than that in this state.

ELLIOTT: Bentley says the state has cut all it can and has threatened to veto further budget cuts, but with no legislative traction behind his tax bill or the gambling plans, the Alabama budget crisis is likely to spill over into a special session. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.