Gambling for education debate rages on

Published 6:12 pm Monday, January 19, 2009

The issue of gambling is sure to come up in our state Legislature’s next session, which begins Feb. 3, and there will be as much political wrangling this time as there was in 1999, when then-Gov. Don Siegelman proposed a state lottery.

Both sides of the issue surely have their proponents. Those in favor of legalized and taxed gambling either are either tired of driving to Mississippi or want to see the state stop cutting education funds – or a combination of both. Those against gambling worry about its negative effects on the communities in which gambling takes place and on society in general. Many in this camp base their arguments on religious grounds.

But most of us are probably unsure just how we feel about the issue. A poll conducted by the Press-Register and the University of South Alabama Polling Group found 19 percent of state residents support gambling regardless of its purpose while 36 percent support gambling that benefits education, according to the Associated Press. Forty-four percent of those polled were opposed to gambling, and 1 percent was unsure.

So, a majority of Alabamians would favor gambling if it benefited education. That may seem like a stark contrast to the easy defeat of Siegelman’s proposal, but don’t think much has changed.

Keith Nicholls, director of the USA Polling Group, said the experience 10 years ago probably taught us that gambling opponents are more likely to turn out to vote than supporters, and Jeff Emerson, Gov. Bob Riley’s communications director, said he suspected the poll would have shown less support if it had included questions about the detrimental effects of gambling. Riley, of course, has taken a hard stance against gambling and even against taxing bingo machines already in operation around the state.

It’s a dilemma: lie out a welcome mat for the devil or allow our education system to crumble. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t that simple.

If we did live in a dream world (or dream state), we could figure out a way to increase the education budget without encouraging a vice. Instead, we’ll just have to decide which side of the gambling issue is better at misinforming us.