Bill to allow gambling has slim chance of survival

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2003

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.

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 the idea could move forward this session despite hurdles. Kott plans to talk with the House Republican majority to gauge support for video gambling.

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."

Video gambling raises complex issues, such as the impact on pull-tab operators and on the charities that depend on pull-tab revenue, said Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican.

"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.

"I think it is just a matter of (not enough) time right now," Dahl said.

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

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