The people's voice of reason

Legislature still torn over gambling

Both Houses of the Alabama Legislature have passed versions of the gambling bill. The two versions are dramatically different.

On Thursday the House of Representatives voted not to concur with the Senate version of the bill. This means that they have sent the issue to a conference committee. That six-member conference committee will then be tasked with preparing a version of the gambling bill that can pass both Houses of the Legislature – a difficult task.

"From the very beginning, we had three key goals with the House's comprehensive legislation," said Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville). "Those included eliminating illegal gaming operations in the state of Alabama, developing a framework for the taxation and regulation of facilities that obtain licenses through an open-bid process and establishing a lottery that benefits education and education only," said House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter. "If one thing has been made clear throughout this process, it's that the people of Alabama want and deserve an opportunity to vote on this issue. I am hopeful that members of the House and Senate are successful in finding a compromise that positions them to do just that."

The House conferees will be:

Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City)

Rep. Andy Whitt (R-Madison)

Rep. Sam Jones (D-Mobile)

Rep. Chris Blackshear sponsored the House version of the bill, which was prepared in secret meetings over the course of the last 16 months without the press or the public being allowed to participate in any substantive way.

"More than 14 months went into crafting this package – the first comprehensive gaming plan to ever pass in the Alabama House of Representatives," said Blackshear. "We were thoughtful in our approach to addressing every aspect of this issue, and I truly feel that the House's final product is what the people want to vote on," said Rep. Blackshear. "I have serious concerns with the Senate's substitute legislation. It rewards those who have operated illegally for decades by handing them licenses without an open-bid process, utilizes lottery revenue to fund non-education expenses and fails to adequately regulate sports wagering, which is one of the most prevalent forms of illegal gaming in the state of Alabama."

Rep. Andy Whitt chaired the secretive House Gaming Study Group. Whitt complained that the Senate bill would not bring as much money into the state's coffers as the more broad House version of the bill.

"At an estimated $1.2 billion annually, the House's legislation creates so many opportunities for our state," said Rep. Whitt. "The lottery revenue alone would make attending community college for thousands of Alabama's students possible and bolster school safety in our K-12 schools. Simply put, the Senate plan leaves some $800 million on the table, and I hope to find a solution to this in conference."

The original House bill would legalize as many as 10 Class III casinos, including slot machines, electronic bingo, sports gambling, and put gambling under the control of an Alabama Gaming Commission with police powers that would eventually shut down all of the illegal gambling in the state and create a lottery. The House bill also orders the Governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creeks Indians (PCI) who operate three electronic bingo facilities in the state under the federal 1986 Indian Gaming Act. The existing PCI sites are in Wetumpka, Montgomery, and Escambia Counties.

The Senate bill is a pared down version with legal gambling facilities, historical horse racing machines, a lottery, and no sports betting or electronic bingo. The same illegal gambling halls in Houston, Greene, Macon, Lowndes, Mobile, and Jefferson Counties would still become state licensed under the Senate and it still authorizes the governor to negotiate a compact with PCI.

Critics warn that both of these proposals will dramatically increase the social costs of gambling addictions. Alabama horse owners argue that this bill does, in its current form, does nothing for them. Even many gambling supporters are critical of elements of these two bills arguing that the Legislature is picking winners and losers in the bill by limiting competition for the limited number of gaming licenses.

Only a handful of legislators know what will be in the new conference committee version of the gambling bill will look like. The committee could bring up their new bill at any time. It would still have to be voted on by each House of the Legislature.

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