Legislators want public vote on gambling

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2008

ANCHORAGE - State legislators are moving quickly toward changing the state constitution so that a public vote would be necessary before any legalized gambling for profit can take place in Alaska.

The move is in response to an initiative that will appear on the August ballot. The initiative would create a commission with the power to authorize gambling without the Legislature's approval.

With three days left in the legislative session, the bill is moving forward quickly.

The state House voted 33-6 in favor of the constitutional amendment this week. It now goes to the Senate. Judiciary Committee Chairman Hollis French said he thinks it has a real shot at passing.

If the Senate does pass the constitutional amendment in time and the governor signs it, the idea would go to voters for approval in the November election. That's presumably before the gaming commission could get set up and act.

"I want this to go into the constitution, that people will always have a say," said Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, who sponsored the measure with Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, R-Eagle River.

As things stand now, it is up to the Legislature to decide whether to allow gambling beyond the limited number of pulltabs, bingo, ice classics, pools, raffles and the like that are now legal to benefit nonprofits. Recent years have seen fights in the Legislature over whether to expand allowable gambling to include video poker, a casino, lotteries or card rooms.

The Legislature refused to do so. That's when people associated with the bar and restaurant industry trade group CHARR produced the initiative for an Alaska Gaming Commission. CHARR members had lobbied for the legalization of video gambling machines in bars and clubs.

The proposed commission would regulate existing gaming in Alaska, which is now overseen by the state Department of Revenue. It also would have the power to expand gambling.

Darwin Biwer, owner of Darwin's Theory, a bar in Anchorage, said initiative backers collected more than 50,000 signatures while getting the measure on the August ballot. He said the constitutional amendment is an attempt to thwart the will of the voters to decide by initiative.

"It's kind of embarrassing to even do such a thing," Biwer said.

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