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Gambling bill would bring casinos to Alabama

The Alabama House of Representatives fast tracked a controversial constitutional amendment sponsored by State Representative Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City). The bill, if passed by the Legislature and ratified by Alabama voters, would create a new bureaucracy – the Alabama Gaming Commission – which would have police powers would have total control of gambling in Alabama.

The bill authorizes the Alabama Gaming Commission to authorize as many as ten casinos across the state of Alabama. Unlicensed facilities that are currently operating illegally across the state of Alabama would be allowed to continue to operate – legally – through the end of 2027. After that those facilities would be forced to close in favor of the regional monopolies created by the licensed casinos.

There would be licensed casinos in Houston, Mobile, Lowndes, Macon, Greene, and Jefferson Counties. These casinos would be allowed to offer slot machines, electronic bingo machines, sports wagering, table games like blackjack and roulette, as well as poker tournaments, dice, and other forms of gambling typically found at Los Vegas style Class III casinos. Electronic bingo games have operated illegally in five of these counties for decades under the protection of local authorities. The attorney general has fought the operators of these illegal facilities in White Hall, Shorter, Eutaw and other places for years.

In addition to these six casinos – the Poarch band of Creek Indians (PCI) currently operate three electronic bingo type Class II casinos in Wetumpka, Montgomery, and Atmore. These are licensed by the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the 1980s Indian Gaming Act. If the omnibus gambling legislation passes, it and its accompanying enabling act would authorize the governor to negotiate a compact with PCI. Since the tribe has no incentive to pay taxes on its existing untaxed operations the legislation authorizes them to expand their operations to include table games, a sports book, and all the other games offered in Class III casinos. The tribe would also be allowed to build a fourth casino. The site of this new casino – not on tribal lands - is said to be in rural north Jackson County – perhaps coincidentally in or very near to Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter(R-Rainsville) and new Senate Majority Leader Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro)'s districts. PCI is reportedly not satisfied with Jackson County and would prefer to build a new casino near the convention center in Birmingham. The McGregor family however already operate an illegal class II gambling facility there and reportedly want an exclusive Jefferson County licensed monopoly.

In addition to the sports books the Alabama Gaming Commission would be authorized to allow Alabamians to bet on sports and other contests from their computers, tablets, or smart phones. The bill also creates a new bureaucracy to run an Alabama lottery. While many Alabamians have been in favor of a Georgia-style Hope Scholarship lottery; this bill does not fund four-year scholarships for institutions like Alabama, Auburn, or UAB. There is a scholarship component to this legislation; but it is limited to scholarships to Alabama's two-year college and technical schools to boost workforce development.

Critics of this legislation, like the Alabama Policy Institute, argue that it grows the size of state government, increases crime, encourages more Alabamians to get addicted to gambling, effectively serves as a tax on those Alabamians who don't understand math; and creates a new state bureaucracy – one that has its own armed police force that is separate and apart from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).

Proponents argue that it gives state government as much as $1.2 billion a year in new revenues. A figure that critics dispute and argue that what money it does bring in is money that would have gone to Alabama stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

If this legislation passes out of the Legislature the public would get the opportunity to vote on this legislation up or down on the November 5 general election ballot.

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