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Bingo issue heads to Ala. party primaries

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–A pro-family leader is calling on Alabama residents to educate themselves before the primaries to determine which candidates support gambling after the legislature dropped a proposal for a statewide referendum on electronic bingo machines.

Following four months of heated debate over the machines and whether they are legal in some counties in the state, a bill passed the Senate but was indefinitely postponed in the House because the sponsor could not find enough votes April 21 to pass the legislation.

The Senate bill would have redefined bingo to include machines that perform the game without player interaction and would have established a gaming commission to decide, along with the legislature, the number and locations of casinos.

Gov. Bob Riley, who has tried to enforce state laws prohibiting slot machines, said opposition to the House bill was bipartisan.

“I believe enough Democrats and Republicans in the House became truly offended by the deceptive tactics of some on the pro-gambling side,” Riley said. “This bill doesn’t call for an up or down vote. Even if the people overwhelmingly voted no, nothing happens. It’s rigged so the casinos win no matter what the people say. The gambling lobby tried to deceive lawmakers and that eventually caught up with them.”

Riley and others who opposed the legislation noted that if the referendum failed, the state would be back where it started before months of discussion. Some counties allow paper bingo for charity, and those constitutional amendments are being used as loopholes for casinos to operate electronic bingo machines, which look and play like slot machines.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, told Baptist Press that despite the legislative victory, concerned citizens still have much to do.

“The focus needs to be now turning to the June 1 primaries because the pro-gambling people are going to be running candidates in both the Republican and Democratic primaries,” Godfrey said. “We need to make sure that we know who is pro-gambling and who is against gambling.

“The same is true for the general election in November. After they get through the primaries, if their candidates win, then they’ll be at the general election in November as well,” Godfrey said. “So it is very, very important for Alabama Baptists to find out where the candidates for the different offices in their area stand on the issue of gambling.”

For incumbents, Godfrey recommended assessing voting records through the Alabama Legislative Information System Online.

“If it’s not an incumbent, they need to ask them point-blank, ‘Where do you stand on the issue?’ and ‘Would you be willing to sign an agreement that you will not support any pro-gambling legislation?'” Godfrey said.

Riley told the Associated Press that if someone offered an up or down vote on gambling, like some Republicans did this time, the legislation might have a better chance at passing in a future session.

Godfrey said he still would be hesitant about that sort of vote because gambling supporters would have a substantial supply of funding for 30-second television ads and other marketing tools that spin the issue their way. It would be imperative, he said, that citizens fully understand what they’re voting on.

“I don’t believe it will be a fair fight. I’d rather we just get rid of it through the legal system, through enforcing the laws,” Godfrey said.

The Alabama Supreme Court still is to decide whether the governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling acted justly in conducting raids on casinos that were operating against state law.

A spokesman for one of those casinos, Country Crossing near Dothan, has said the country-music themed development is considering moving out of state after it voluntarily closed in January under the threat of a raid by the task force.

“We’re having to explore all of our options,” Jay Walker of Country Crossing said. “Our economic situation is not good.”

Godfrey said he would be sorry to see the entertainment portion of Country Crossing move out of the state, but he would not mind seeing the gambling part go.

“There are better ways to bring people to Alabama than gambling,” he said, referring to the argument that casinos are necessary for increasing tourism revenue.

An editorial by The Anniston Star April 23 lamented the time that was spent in the legislature debating the gambling issue during the past months and said the state “desperately needs to move past this topic.” The newspaper said gambling eclipsed more important issues such as underfunded schools, lax ethics laws and an unfair tax system.

“The pro-gambling people kept saying this legislative session, ‘Let the people vote. Everybody is sick of talking about gambling,'” Godfrey said. “The only people that are pushing gambling in the state legislature are the gambling bosses. So if they are no longer pushing it, then it won’t be an issue. If we can enforce the laws of the state of Alabama and shut down these slot machine facilities around the state, then the legislature won’t have to deal with it.

“I would also add that part of the problem is that there are many legislators — not all of them — that let these gambling bosses influence them and talk to them. If these legislators would say, ‘You don’t need to talk to me. I’m not going to vote for this gambling stuff,’ then eventually they’d quit talking to them,” Godfrey said. “The legislators that I’ve talked with that have stood strong against the gambling bosses say, ‘They don’t even come to me anymore. They know I’m not going to vote for it.’

“Well, who is it these gambling bosses are going to? They’re going to the legislators that talk to them and accept their money. Part of the solution is for us to stop having legislators that take gambling money for campaign contributions and who won’t listen to the gambling bosses when they try to convince them to vote for their legislation.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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