Sparks rolls out plan for education lottery, to tax gaming
Sparks, in his second term as agriculture commissioner, said he would use revenue from taxing gambling in the state to offset the removal of the state's sales tax. Several proposals in the Legislature would have replaced the lost revenue by not allowing some Alabamians to deduct the federal income taxes they pay from their state income taxes.
"With the revenue we gain from finally taxing casino gambling in Alabama, we can eliminate any need for new taxes and freeze existing taxes and still meet our obligations to education and the General Fund programs," Sparks said at the announcement at his Montgomery headquarters.
He said he would use the revenue to support Medicaid and education, and to create a disaster relief fund for agriculture.
Sparks said he wanted to use a state lottery to fund LifeStart scholarships to guarantee that Alabama students with at least a "C" average in high school can attend a university, two-year college or technical program of their choice in the state.
"State lotteries are educating the children in Georgia, Tennessee and Florida," he said. "Every year Alabamians spend millions of dollars on these lotteries to help educate the children of other states. A LifeStart scholarship program will make sure that Alabama dollars educate Alabama children."
Alabama voters soundly defeated a state lottery during the administration of the last Democratic governor, Don Siegelman. The lottery was a top issue for Siegelman.
The commissioner said gambling is "already big business in Alabama" and that Alabama residents spend $1.2 billion a year "on some kind of gambling." He said about 10 percent of the money spent in Mississippi casinos, about $80 million, comes from Alabama.
"For too long, Alabama politicians have pretended that gambling didn't exist," Sparks said. "For too long, state leaders have refused to face reality and deal responsibly with one of the fastest growing businesses in our state.
"Well, it's time for that to end."
He said, no matter the rhetoric from politicians, they are not going to "prevent or get rid" of gambling in Alabama.
Sparks, who cannot run for a third consecutive term as agriculture commissioner, does not support a referendum to allow voters to approve gambling statewide, but a vote in each county to decide whether or not they want gambling there.
"If you live there, it should be your choice," the commissioner said.
He said he would look at the taxation of gambling in nearby states to try to determine at which level to try to tax gaming. When asked how he knew if there would be enough revenue generated to offset removing the sales tax and other proposals, Sparks responded "we're not raising any money today."
"Our state is sending hundreds of millions of dollars to other states and allowing in-state gaming to get by without paying their fair share," he said. "It's time to start collecting taxes from gaming operations and to use that money to support vital state services and programs."
Sparks also said he would work with the Indian gambling operations in the state, which cannot be taxed, to try to develop a compact in which those entities agree to give money to the state in lieu of taxes.
He also supports the formation of a gaming commission to regulate the operations.
The Legislature has locked down in recent years over gambling proposals, including one introduced in the last session that would have created an entertainment and gaming circuit in the state intended to attract tourism dollars.
The commissioner and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, are the only two Democrats who have announced they are running for governor. Six Republicans have announced they will run for governor in 2010.
Davis spokesman Alex Goepfert applauded Sparks for some of his goals, but criticized him for using failed ideas, which he called "old Alabama politics -- the same old sound bites, fuzzy math, and no bold new plans that challenge us to move forward."
"It's a good thing that Ron Sparks has signed onto Congressman Davis' goals of funding college costs for young people who need help, of allowing local communities to make their own choices on gaming, and eliminating the regressive state tax on food and prescription drugs," he said in a statement.
"But to achieve these ideas, Sparks has managed to cobble together some golden oldies from the last ten years of failed stalemates in Montgomery. Instead of putting forward new plans to strengthen public education, instead of proposing new ideas to recruit high paying jobs, Sparks wants to refight old political battles from the past decade."
In polls released by the Davis campaign, the congressman was well ahead of Sparks in a potential head-to-head match-up.