Poll finds broad support for gambling in Alabama

Published 12:08 pm Monday, January 19, 2009

MOBILE — A statewide poll of Alabama adults found a majority support gambling if it generates money for schools.

The survey by the Press-Register and the University of South Alabama Polling Group showed 36 percent support gambling that benefits education and 19 percent support gambling regardless of the purpose. That total of 55 percent compared with 44 percent who were opposed. The remaining 1 percent were unsure.

Some lawmakers have suggested the Legislature look at expanding and taxing electronic bingo machines in the session starting Feb. 3. The machines are already available in several Alabama counties. They look like slot machines, but players compete against each other rather than against the house.

Keith Nicholls, director of the USA Polling Group, said the survey numbers indicate there is no consensus about gambling in Alabama.

Legalizing more gambling in the state would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment in a statewide referendum.

Nicholls said the voters’ rejection of former Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposal for a state lottery in 1999 showed that gambling opponents are more likely to turn out than supporters.

“A lot of these people would be even more strongly opposed to casino gambling,” he said.

Gov. Bob Riley has taken a hard line against expanding gambling, but Alabama legislators are facing a second year of having to cut education spending due to declining tax revenue.

The Legislature and the governor cut the state education budget to about $6 billion this year from $6.7 billion last year. Fiscal experts predict it could drop to $5.7 billion next year.

“It’s a serious problem that we don’t get any state revenue from bingo,” said state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, who heads the Senate’s education budget committee.

The Alabama Education Association, one of the state’s most influential lobbying groups, has called for a state tax on electronic bingo. The tax would apply to the bingo halls in Macon, Greene, Lowndes and Walker counties, as well as the Country Crossing resort being planned for Houston County.

But it would not apply to the Poarch Creek Indians’ operations in Montgomery, Elmore and Escambia counties, including the new Wind Creek Casino in Atmore. The Indians’ operations are not subject to state taxation.

Jeff Emerson, the governor’s communications director, said he suspected the gambling poll would have shown less support if it had included questions about the detrimental effects of gambling, such as increased crime and bankruptcies.

The random telephone poll was conducted Jan. 12-14 with 430 adults statewide. It had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points.