An Oklahoma legislator has come up with an idea to fill the state's yawning budget gap that looks interesting on the surface, but probably won't gain much traction.
Lawmakers slid through a cigarette tax last session in attempt to plug the $215 million hole, but the move was folly. Though legislative supporters tried to mask it as a "fee," the state's high court accurately recognized it as a tax, and shot down the 11th-hour move because of the timing and the way it was passed.
Democrats, including Tahlequah's Matt Meredith, didn't like the cigarette tax, for two reasons: First, it was another cop-out to avoid making the state's energy industry accept its share of the burden. Some legislators want those companies to return to a 7 percent levy. And second, the cigarette tax would fall on the burden of the state's poor, working and middle classes - something too many well-heeled legislators are always keen to do.
State Rep. Kevin Wallace would like to reinstate the $1.50-per-pack tax, with an added caveat: He'd like to allow tribal casinos to offer traditional casino games like roulette, and more importantly, dice games. That would mean the introduction of "real" craps, which aficionados say offers the best odds in favor of the player. In return, Wallace wants the tribes to rebate to the state the fees they charge their tribal members for car tags.
There's no doubt the proposal perked up the ears of some seasoned gamblers around the state. Polls conducted by various media outlets - including one about four years ago by the Daily Press - suggest there are three reasons people don't visit tribal casinos: They think it's a waste of time and money or just don't like to gamble; they have moral objections to gambling in general; or they don't like the type of gambling tribes offer.
That last issue is significant, because the electronic gaming machines in tribal casinos operate more like bingo games than traditional slots and tables in Las Vegas.
They are progressive, competing against other machines in other casinos, and for that reason, "professional" gamblers say the odds aren't as good. They also don't like the "feel" of the games, and they don't like flipping cards instead of rolling dice.
But tribes, which now pay the state fees to block commercial gaming, may not want to rock the boat. They may reason that they're making plenty of money now; why risk the revenue stream with major change? There are also the legislators who have come forward to say they have a moral problem with gambling.
If legislators and others object to "dice" because their own religious doctrines eschew gambling, then they are forcing their tenets upon the rest of Oklahoma and should prudently back off. But if they object because they fear increased gambling addiction, they have a point.
No tribal casino official would try to claim those problems don't exist, and most tribes - including the Cherokee Nation - have programs to address addiction.
There's no doubt Wallace's plan constitutes a double-edged sword, and some might even view it as sort of a bribe for the tribes.
Whether it's feasible would depend almost entirely on whether tribal officials believe it will benefit their citizens.
When the Legislature reconvenes Sept. 25, lawmakers should at least discuss this and any other plan before they shoot them down due to their own personal codes. They ought to give tribal officials time to think about it, and to weigh in. And, of course, they ought to take another hard look at the energy industry.
- The Tahlequah Daily News