Gambling is going to play a huge role in Alabama’s political campaign this year – that is glaringly obvious. We have already seen high-profile arrests stemming from alleged vote-buying in connection with a previous attempt to legalize casino gambling in the state. That investigation is ongoing and only God knows where it will lead.
In the meantime, both candidates for governor have expressed their willingness to allow Alabamians to vote on whether to legalize gambling. Given the economic climate in our state and in our country, it’s a pretty good bet that voters will say yes to some sort of gambling initiative.
The moral concerns about gambling have been made abundantly clear by several faith groups in Alabama, none more vocal than the group I am a part of – Alabama Baptists. In 1999 it was Baptists, in concert with other faith groups and concerned citizens, that shut down Don Siegelman’s effort to institute a state-supported lottery. Those voices will be out there again, but it is a different day and time. It is not at all clear that Christian activism will be able to stem the tide this go-round.
The concerns are valid. Lotteries and casino gambling prey upon the poor. It is the desperate among us who seek to cash in on their dreams all at once with one big payoff. And for those who cannot manage their behavior – the addictive gamblers – the loss of livelihood and the impact on families can be devastating.
And while we must hold accountable those who gamble irresponsibly and lose money they cannot afford to lose, the gamblers are not the only culpable players here. The nationwide overreliance on gambling as a source of state revenue represents a gross failure of leadership. That is nowhere more evident than in Alabama.
Alabama boasts of having some of the lowest property taxes in the country. But what we get for those low taxes is some of the poorest schools in the nation.
And while we complain and bemoan the constant ebb and flow in our education funding, we fail to realize that much of our state government depends on sales tax. It is nearly impossible to plan a long-range budget in Alabama because we cannot know from year to year what the sales tax revenue is going to be. It is that reality that keeps our schools in proration.
All of this represents a failure of leadership. Because elected officials lack the courage to enact adequate taxes, we suffer with inadequate schools and state services. In Alabama we overtax the poor by means of sales tax and regressive income tax, and under-tax the wealthy with favorable income breaks.
Combine this with an irrational anti-tax mania that has gripped the whole country, and we end up with a situation in which elected officials are afraid to raise taxes. So instead, we resort to gambling.
I stand with other faith leaders in opposing legalized gambling in our state. But saying no to gambling is not enough. Those who oppose gambling as a moral concern also need to help legislators have the backbone necessary to reform our tax system and raise adequate taxes for schools and other services. Adequate and fair taxes would make the need for gambling revenue irrelevant.
It’s an example of what Paul meant in the New Testament when he wrote “do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
Editor’s note: The relationship between gambling and taxes is explored in EthicsDaily.com’s new documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.” Click here to learn more about it.