Lottery Jim Cook

This January 2016 Dothan Eagle file photo shows an Alabama resident walking into a liquor store on U.S. 231 South to buy lottery tickets in Florida near the Alabama/Florida state line.

The gambling debate in Alabama always falls along two paths that never meet, despite the arguments being hurled from one path to another.

The first path is about human freedom. Many of those that support the expansion of gambling in Alabama believe that residents should have the right to gamble if they choose. After all, residents have the right to engage in other potentially abusive activities including smoking and drinking alcohol. The state doesn’t force residents across the border to grab a beer. So, why should residents have to cross the border for the lottery or other types of gambling?

The second path is about money. Residents generally loathe tax increases of any kind. Many who support the expansion of gambling in Alabama may never purchase a lottery ticket or punch buttons on a video terminal, but believe the state would benefit from the additional revenue generated.

The first argument holds more weight than the second. Maybe Alabama residents should have the right to plunk a few dollars on the lottery if they so choose, but it probably won’t result in a noticeable difference economically.

Critics of the gambling-as-a-revenue-generator argument believe that every dollar received in new revenue will be spent to counteract the negative side effects of gambling. As more people gamble, more people will become addicted. Many more people will lose than win. Bankruptcies will increase. Families will split. More people will need government assistance. So, the money just churns around in a circle. Additionally, dollars spent on lottery tickets are dollars not spent furthering commerce at a local business (although convenience store owners may benefit).

It remains unclear just where Alabama’s lottery revenue would go if voters have the opportunity approve a referendum next year. The Education Trust Fund is on much better ground now than it used to be when proration was a common occurrence. Most growth taxes currently benefit education.

Of course, Alabama doesn’t have an overabundance of money spent on education, but money doesn’t always equate to better performance in the classroom.

While most revenue from casino gambling in Mississippi is not tied to education, some school systems do benefit directly. Even without direct funds to education, the underlying thought process of legalizing casino gambling in the first place was that a rising tide would raise all ships. That hasn’t happened.

A 2018 study by WalletHub ranked state education systems. Categories included dropout rate and SAT/ACT scores along with quality and safety considerations. Mississippi ranked 45, behind Alabama at 44. Since 1992, Mississippi casinos have paid $24 billion in tax revenues, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald.

How about Las Vegas? In 2018, Nevada ranked 51st out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in Education Week magazine’s Quality Counts report. The data used to form the report came from 2015.

So maybe Alabama residents should have the freedom to play the lottery without traveling to do so, but don’t think the state will benefit from it.

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Editor

Lover of sweet tea, fried okra and the Boston Red Sox.

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