Local governments take on gaming

Published 10:30 pm Monday, September 28, 2009

There is nothing that seems to rile up more controversy in Alabama than gambling. It seems that the debate is going to increase rather than decrease because more and more local governments are looking to expand bingo.

The Birmingham City Council approved electronic bingo ordinances this summer, opening the possibility of expanding the games throughout the city. The council is now going back to revise their original rules, but Alabama’s largest city seems poised to have a major increase in bingo halls.

One of the state’s poorest cities is Pritchard, a community next to Mobile. That city council is looking to allow electronic bingo in the city to bring money into the city’s depleted pension fund.

Authorities in St. Clair County have been fighting with two of its towns, trying to stop the establishment of the county’s first electronic bingo parlor. There is confusion and delay over plans to develop major bingo halls in Gadsden and Dothan, with developers moving forward or ready to, yet paused because of questions over state law.

Local governments see bingo as a way to raise revenue and create jobs in a time when both are needed and in short supply. Bingo is already big business in several Alabama counties, and the No. 1 employer in Macon County. Whether you agree with bingo or not, the financial and economic development pressure will have more and more counties and cities looking to establish or expand gaming.

For his part, Etowah County District Attorney Jimmie Harp called for the governor to call a special session to deal once and for all with the issue of electronic bingo. The uncertainty he sees about the Gadsden project is duplicated all over the state. He feels that the law should be clear once-and-for-all, ending the “chaos” surrounding the issue.

Harp noted that the confusion on bingo goes all the way up to the top levels of state government. Gov. Bob Riley and Attorney General Troy King have opposite views on the subject of whether electronic bingo machines are legal at all. Now they are at loggerheads over what to do about it. Unhappy with King, Riley appointed a task force headed by former Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber to deal with gambling in Alabama, a job you’d figure should be the responsibility of the attorney general.

While the governor and the attorney general bicker and compete, more and more local governments seem to simply move forward and gaming expands unregulated, unlimited, and untaxed.

During the last legislative session, several bills that would limit, regulate, and tax electronic bingo were debated endlessly, and they ultimately failed. Without some cooperation from the governor and some bipartisan agreement, something that big is doomed to fail.

So what we will see now is an endless parade of more local governments moving forward on electronic bingo. Bingo has always been a local decision, and without any overriding state law, local governments will continue to move forward. No matter what side of the issue you are on, widespread and unregulated expansion of electronic bingo is not a good outcome.