- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Gambling legislation cleared its first hurdle in the Alabama Legislature on Tuesday.

The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee voted 6-2 for the proposal to hold a referendum on creating a state lottery and allowing Las Vegas-style casinos at four existing dog tracks. The plan is being pushed by powerful Republican Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh. Marsh said he believes Alabamians should be allowed to vote on whether to amend the state constitution and legalize gambling

“The people understand that this is an option that needs to be out there,” Marsh, R-Anniston, said

At a public hearing, opponents argued gambling is poor public policy and will prey on the state’s poor. Proponents called it a voluntary tax and a way to jumpstart the state’s economy and replenish empty state coffers.

Former Auburn University football coach Pat Dye spoke in favor of the legislation, saying gambling already exists in Alabama at Indian bingo casinos that operate without competition.

“I think we got gambling going on in the state right now. The problem with that is we don’t get any revenue for it,” Dye said. Dye is helping lead the Alabama Jobs Foundation, a group lobbying and advertising for Marsh’s bill

The Legislative Fiscal Office projected a lottery would generate up to $300 million annually for the state education budget and the four casinos would generate $75 million for the state’s general fund.

The gambling bill now moves to the Alabama Senate floor, where emotions ran high Tuesday over the effort. Some Republican senators oppose the gambling push by their Senate leader.

Sen Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, said he believes lawmakers are being manipulated to favor the passage of gambling legislation either in this special session or when they return for the regular session in 2016.

“It’s a way to prey on families,” Brewbaker said. “It’s a voluntary unlimited tax on the portion of our community least able to sustain it and that’s why I’m against it.”

Sen Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, lashed back on the Senate floor, saying conservative senators who have fought gambling, also haven’t supported policies to help his poverty-stricken district.

Lawmakers are in a special session to address a projected $200 million shortfall in the general fund budget.

Marsh has suggested shifting tax revenue from the better-situated education budget to the strapped general fund. He said lawmakers could debate later if they wanted to “backfill” the education budget. Marsh said he believed gambling would be the best option for backfill.

However, Marsh said he was not suggesting the shift to push the gambling bill. He said that through years of lobbying, education interests have drawn most of the growth in tax revenues to the state education budget while the general fund remains perpetually anemic.

Marsh said he is uncertain if the gambling will get a vote this session.

Committee debate showed Marsh’s gambling push could face opposition from some members of his own party.

The committee tabled an alternative suggestion by Republican Sen. Trip Pittman to have Alabama join a multi-state lottery such as Powerball, instead of creating casinos or a new agency to run a state lottery.

“What people want to vote on is a lottery,” Pittman, R-Montrose, said.

The committee also tabled a proposal suggested by a lobbyist for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that would have put the casino sites out for bid. The tribe operates three casinos with bingo games that resemble slot machines.

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