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Stokes: Clear eyes needed on sports betting question

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News contributor

With multiple candidates representing the two major parties, Alabama’s gubernatorial primary has already proven to be full of intrigue.  That intrigue went up a notch last week when the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 7-2 ruling overturning a federal law banning sports gambling.  

Alabama politicians have mostly come around to allowing another statewide referendum on an education lottery with candidates like Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox making an education lottery the center of their prospective agenda. Now that states have been freed up to make up their own minds on the matter of sports gambling, this election season has taken a turn that may catch many voters by surprise.

Serious sports fans, and I believe we have a few of those in this state, have known a decision was coming on this case.  Social conservatives should not be surprised by this outcome, as the Court’s conservative block joined with three liberals in the majority.  While conservative justices may recognize the potential social harm brought about by gambling, the Constitution does not grant the federal government the authority to regulate it.  While I’m highly skeptical of legalized gambling (more on that in a minute), this is the correct view. America is large and diverse nation, and the framers of our Constitution were correct in leaving this sort of a decision up to the individual states.   

Things get interesting at the state level, as many states are already prepared to open the gates for sports books in the coming weeks.  At last count at least sixteen states have either already authored legislation or have live authorizing legislation to allow sports betting.  As these states see an initial growth in revenues, the pressure on other states such as Alabama will only intensify. This will certainly impact the current race for governor.  If past arguments about a state lottery are any indication, it’s unlikely this debate will go away until betting is authorized here, as well.

It’s worth noting that there is a key difference between the lottery and sports betting, and that is the former is run by the state, while the latter is simply regulated by it.  That may not change the personal moral equation for many voters, but there is a significant difference in terms of political morality. In one case, the state administers and promotes a vice, while in another it regulates and taxes it.

Many in Alabama are already calling for legal betting within our own borders.  Our state is captivated by college football: the Birmingham television market often ranks near the top on any given night of football.  That’s not just ratings for the Iron Bowl, mind you. Those numbers include those Tuesday night games between Bowling Green and Akron. Some reports suggest that Alabamians already bet an enormous amount of money on sports, and the state should regulate and tax the practice.  The proceeds, of course, could fill in state budget gaps, with the greater portion going to support the state’s public education system. On the merits, this isn’t the worst idea. The state could use the funds, and better the money stay in Alabama than to head to Mississippi or Georgia.  

But before we all turn into Scrooge McDuck, prepping for a swan dive into a vault of cash culled from gambling taxes, let’s weigh the tradeoffs. You know about tradeoffs, right? In politics and economics, everything has a tradeoff, and legalized sports gambling is no different.

To get right to it, all those gambling proceeds would be budgeted by the Alabama legislature.  Are you pleased with their work? I’m not, and you shouldn’t be, either. Too often our legislative sessions are marking by petty, territorial squabbling and ill-conceived public expenditures.  There are smart, hardworking legislators in Montgomery, but it’s hard to argue that we can have confidence that hundreds of millions of additional funds will be well managed. It’s often said that we should legalize gambling because people are already doing it, but that’s not always true.  Plenty of people don’t gamble with illegal bookies, and a legal sports book would increase the number of gamblers. Many of those gamblers would know their limits, but some would not. Let’s not pretend that opening the door to sports gambling wouldn’t result in an increase in gambling addiction, with all the social costs that come with it.  Furthermore, gaming companies would do well, but in a small state like Alabama, they would carry a larger influence in state politics. No doubt many of the pundits today arguing for legalizing gambling will be bemoaning the influence of gambling magnates in Montgomery five years from now.

It may be that the people of Alabama decide to allow for legalized sports betting.  Of course the state will survive. There is no army of zombies that will wash ashore in Orange Beach, demanding we all take the points in the LSU/Florida game.  Yet we should not pretend that extra funds will solve our state’s problems. Politics is always downstream from culture, and those problems will ultimately be decided in communities, among families, neighbors, and congregations.  We should not be blind to the potential consequences of increased addiction and the influence of gaming magnates on our state politics.

As we begin to wrestle with such an important decision, let us move with clear eyes and demand the same from our elected officials.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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