The adage that "the devil is in the details" applies to most legislation, but never more appropriately than when it is used to describe possible legislation to expand casino-style gambling in Alabama.
With the state Attorney General's Office cracking down on alleged electronic slot machines at VictoryLand and filing a lawsuit against Indian gambling in the state, calls for the Legislature to bring some sanity to the gambling issue in Alabama are sure to increase.
But just what should such gambling legislation look like?
Before attempting to answer that question, let me first say that I don't detect much enthusiasm in the Legislature to address the issue of legalized gambling any time soon. There are just too many fresh wounds from the last time the Legislature tried to address legalized gambling -- too many memories of indictments and federal grand juries and embarrassing revelations from wiretaps. It will take at least another two or three sessions, I believe, before legislators are willing to tackle the issue again in any meaningful way.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, also does not believe the issue will arise soon.
"Under a Democrat legislative majority, gambling in Alabama was a much debated and contentious issue for several years. But now with the change in legislative leadership, I do not anticipate it being addressed by the Legislature anytime in the near future," he said. "The solid majority of my Republican colleagues and I do not support gambling and feel our time can be better spent focusing on other matters."
However, eventually the issue will come up again. And before it does, the state's elected leaders and the voters who will have to decide in a constitutional referendum whether the state will expand its legalized gambling need to give a lot of thought to what that gambling legislation should do and not do.
First, let me be clear: This column is not about whether the state should have legalized gambling, or even if it should expanded. Nor is it about whether the current gambling that we do have is legal. That latter issue is one that should properly be decided by the courts.
But if the Legislature chooses to allow the public to decide in a referendum if the state will expand casino-style gambling, including slot machines, then here are some suggestions concerning what should be covered by that referendum.
Any expansion of gambling in the state:
-- Should be preceded by the creation of a strong, statewide regulatory control body with sweeping powers to ferret out corruption.
Alabama jumped into legalized gambling without first putting in place an oversight mechanism and process. So the corruption trials that dominated the headlines and airwaves in recent years should have come as a surprise to no one.
-- Should maximize revenues to state and local governments.
Again, Alabama did it wrong the first time. Compared to most states with legalized gambling, Alabama state and local governments realize only a pittance from the gambling the state currently allows, and that is true whether it proves to be legal or illegal.
Any further legalization of gambling should be accompanied by taxes and revenues at least as high as the national average among gambling states. Those taxes should be high enough to completely fund a strong gambling regulatory process, fund programs designed to help people who have gambling addictions, and still produce enough revenue for the state and local governments to put a dent into some of the chronic funding problems those entities face.
-- Should not grant permanent monopolies on gambling to a handful of politically powerful individuals.
Companies should have to bid for the right to operate a limited number of casinos in Alabama, and the licenses to operate should require periodic renewals. And those licenses should be subject to cancellation by the state for corruption or failure to follow state regulations.
-- Should allow cities and counties to opt out of legalized gambling.
Even if voters approve an expansion of legalized gambling statewide, it should not be allowed in any city or county that does not first approve it in a local referendum.
-- Require public disclosure of every individual who owns or benefits financially from a gambling operation, and full disclosure of the ongoing finances of gambling operations.
Of course, Native American gambling operations come under federal oversight, and essentially the state has to allow recognized Native American tribes to offer the same type of gambling that the state allows. But the state needs to try to work out a compact with Native Americans to generate at least some revenue for state and local governments before any expansion is considered.
To sum all that up: Any proposed constitutional amendment to expand legalized gambling should maximize the oversight of gambling and maximize the revenue that flows to the state from gambling, while doing everything humanly possible to minimize the corrupting influences of legalized gambling.
All that needs to be spelled out in what the public is asked to vote on. Lawmakers don't need to try to get the public to approve some generalized constitutional amendment that would expand gambling but allow the Legislature to work out the details later. I doubt if such an amendment would pass anyway; I do not believe the people of Alabama put that much trust in the Legislature.
The bottom line: Until the people of Alabama see the specifics of a constitutional amendment produced by the Legislature, they should withhold judgment and never forget that especially in this case, the devil really is in the details.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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