Gambling bill running out of time

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) A proposal to allow video gambling machines in bars and clubs to help balance the state budget appears dead or nearly so as the Legislature enters its final weeks.

The once-hot idea is stalled in the House Special Committee on Ways and Means. Fairbanks Republican Rep. Jim Whitaker, the committee co-chairman handling the gambling bill, said he has no plans to bring it up again. He confirmed this week that the idea appears to be dead for this year.

Public opposition has surged in the past two weeks, Whitaker said, with complaints coming in by e-mail, phone and people talking to him in the Capitol. He said a broad cross-section of the public appears to oppose video gambling.

The support amongst members of the Legislature is now ... eroding (and) the consensus against it has increased,'' he said.

The Ways and Means Committee was created this year to find and assess ways to fix the budget shortfall. The committee should focus on ideas to bring money into the treasury that have a reasonable chance of being successful,'' Whitaker said.

But House Speaker Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican who supports the video gambling idea, is not ready to fold his cards. He said that while there are some hurdles to climb,'' the idea could move forward this session. Kott plans to talk with the House Republican majority to gauge support for video gambling.

But even if the measure passed the House, it could be dead on arrival in the Senate. Fairbanks Republican Sen. Gary Wilken, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, offered a blunt appraisal: That isn't going to come together this year.''

Time is tight about three weeks are left in the session and video gambling raises complex issues, like the impact on pull-tab operators and on the charities that depend on pull-tab revenue, said Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

I don't know that we can get there,'' he said.

Under the proposal in the House, video gamblers would play quarters. The machines would return 85 percent in prizes. Of the rest, the state would take 30 percent, the charities would get 30 percent, the bar or club 30 percent, and the local government 10 percent.

Frank Dahl, a board member of the Anchorage Cabaret Hotel and Restaurant Retailers Association, which is pushing the video gambling bill, said he believes there is more public support than opposition for the idea.

I think it has a real good shot,'' Dahl said. I think it is just a matter of (not enough) time right now.''

CHARR will take up the fight again next year, he said.

The Alaska Department of Revenue figures video gambling could bring in $50 million a year.

A proposal for a state lottery is still alive in the House this year, but it would bring in much less money than video gambling. If Alaska joined a multistate lottery it could bring in $10 million or more, although no official estimate has been made.

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