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Alabama Gambling Halls Are Out of Luck

SHORTER, Ala. - The VictoryLand gambling complex in this town of 375 is Macon County's largest employer and biggest taxpayer. It has helped pay for police cars and raises for county employees.

Now, in the worst recession in generations, VictoryLand is shuttered. Its 1,600 employees are trying to get unemployment checks and planning to protest Saturday against the actions that cost them their jobs, says Marlin King, 31, of nearby Tuskegee, out of work for just over a month. "We don't know what this is all about, what's legal and what's not," he says. "We're just hoping it'll reopen."

VictoryLand is embroiled in an intense battle over gambling in Alabama. The state's lame-duck governor, Republican Bob Riley, began a crackdown on illegal gambling 15 months ago. He declared that thousands of gambling devices - electronic bingo machines - in 16 of the state's 67 counties are actually slot machines, which are illegal in Alabama.

His Task Force on Illegal Gambling launched raids on casinos. VictoryLand closed to avert one. Local elected officials such as Macon County Commission Chairman Louis Maxwell, whose budgets rely on gambling, say their machines are legal.

The lure of gambling is especially keen in a recession that has states grappling with billions of dollars in budget gaps. Alabama's revenue collections for the first five months of the current fiscal year lag behind the same period last year by 2.64 percent, the state Department of Revenue says.

It's not the only state looking to gambling expansion for a financial boost. Potential gambling revenue is especially hard for politicians to ignore in difficult economic times, says Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada-Reno.

"There's been a lot of movement this year to look at some form of gambling because of the desperation of state politicians," he says. "Ohio, Pennsylvania and Delaware all are either expanding or legalizing casino-style gambling."

Hawaii and Utah are the only states that have no legal gambling. For the 48 states that have some form of wagering, gambling isn't proving to be a financial safety net. The Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York-Albany found that in fiscal 2009, gambling revenue from U.S. casinos and lotteries dropped for the first time, shattering any notion gambling is recession-proof.

A Southern showdown

Alabama's gambling fight is unique in its "brinksmanship," Eadington says. "The (bingo) operators are saying, 'We've already built the facilities. We're employing thousands of people.' They were daring the state to come after them," he says. "The governor's taking a very strong stance."

In Alabama, slot machines are illegal - but thousands of people for years have played machines that seem identical to slots. The state long ignored it. "That's one of the things that's puzzling to a lot of people," says Bradley Moody, associate professor of political science at Auburn University-Montgomery. "If this is a moral issue for Gov. Riley, why wasn't it morally unacceptable in, say, February 2003?" Riley was elected in 2002.

Chickasaw, a city of 6,000, opened a bingo casino in February. The task force raided it the same day. Mayor Byron Pittman says plans called for 500 machines generating $4 million a year for the city, more than doubling its annual budget. He says the city wanted to spend the money on a 50 percent increase of the police force and other improvements.

Dramatic endgame

The fight over gambling in Alabama has a rich, layered story: the governor and his wife being shouted down by gambling supporters in Montgomery; the first head of the gambling task force resigning in January after acknowledging that he won $2,300 at a Mississippi casino; the specter of an armed confrontation between one defiant county sheriff and his deputies and the task force.

Attorney General Troy King, a Republican, says the task force should stop the raids and get court rulings declaring electronic bingo illegal in each county instead of risking "harm to law enforcement or the public with further warrantless raids."

Nonsense, says John Tyson, head of the Governor's Task Force on Illegal Gambling and district attorney of Mobile County. "These are slot machines, and slot machines are illegal," says Tyson, a Democrat.

Only one of Alabama's four largest non-Indian casinos, Greentrack in Greene County, remains open. Greene County Sheriff Ison Thomas has said that bingo machines there are legal and that he won't allow a raid by the task force.

Tyson says Thomas "does raise the specter" of an armed confrontation. "I hope it doesn't get to the point where we have to arrest another law enforcement officer," he says.

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