House bill pushes gambling as budget savior

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Legislation is moving through the state House to expand Alaska gambling as a way to help balance the budget.

The bill calls for a lottery and electronic games such as video poker, keno and blackjack. Alaska gambling is now mostly limited to bingo and pull-tabs.

The state would take a cut of the proceeds, along with bars, clubs and charities.

Supporters include House Speaker Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, who has made the bill a personal priority and put his staff to work on it.

But opponents argue expanded gambling would be socially destructive.

The state lottery and electronic gambling are the latest proposals for trying to fill the state's huge budget shortfall, which ranges from $400 million to over a billion dollars each year, largely depending on the price of oil. The budget reserve that absorbs the shortfall is expected to be gone within the next few years.

The bill's proponents hope Alaska joins 25 other states that already are part of the giant Powerball lottery system, in which people buy a ticket for a $1 for the extremely remote chance of ending up a millionaire. Kott envisions some kind of catchy name, like the Gold Rush Powerball, and lottery terminals set up on cruise ships and state ferries so that tourists will participate as well as Alaskans visiting the local store.

No official estimate was available on how much the state could make from such a lottery, but Kott said he believes it could be $40 million a year. Other estimates range down to $10 million, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

''I think the time has come,'' Kott said.

Another part of the bill deals with electronic gaming. Machines could be only in bars or, in dry communities, clubs like the Moose or Elks lodge. Players would have to be at least 21 old.

Players would put money into the machine, which would pay back 85 percent in prizes. The state would take 30 percent of the rest; 30 percent would go to charities on a permit system; 30 percent would go to the bar or club, and the other 10 percent would go to the local government. If there is not local government, that share would go to the state.

The bill, HB 240, has passed in one committee and is scheduled for a 7 a.m. hearing Wednesday at the House Special Ways and Means Committee.

The Department of Revenue is still working on an estimate of how much electronic gambling could bring in but says it could be in the range of $50 million a year after expenses. Advocates argue that it could be even more.

Republican House Majority Leader Rep. John Coghill of North Pole objects on moral grounds to taking money from people through gambling.

''I think it's absolutely wrong for us to try to bring balance into our budget with worse public policy,'' he said. ''Gambling will never get my vote.''

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