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Gambling bill could come at any time

The Alabama Legislative Session has just five days left and there is still no resolution on the gambling issue. Sources have told the Alabama Gazette that there will be no gambling bill brought to the floor on Thursday, April 24.

Rep. Craig Lipscomb (R-Gadsden) told the Alabama Gazette on Thursday that there is "no telling when that is going to come down" from the conference committee for a vote.

Rep. Artis "A.J." McCampbell (D-Livingston) was asked by the Alabama Gazette if it would be brought up in Thursday's business before the Legislature.

"Nah, I doubt it," said McCampbell. "They aren't going to surprise anyone with the gambling bill."

The House of Representatives passed one gambling bill that it crafted in secret by the House Stady Committee on Gaming – which met for over a year without even one meeting that was open to the public. That billion-dollar gambling expansion was most unwelcome in the more conservative Alabama Senate which promptly substituted it for a more scaled back proposal. The House refused to pass the Senate bill sending it to a six-member conference committee.

State Senator Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) in a discussion of the state's mental health shortcomings that they could fix this, "By passing the gaming bill."

Senator Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) said on Wednesday that it will not come down with the division of revenues that passed the Senate. Albritton, who carried the gambling bill in the Senate, is one of the members of the conference committee.

Both of the bills would give the state a lottery and both of them authorize the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek band of Indians (PCI). Both also would allow "historical horse racing" machines and parimutuel gambling at legacy gambling facilities in Houston, Mobile, Greene, Macon, the city of Birmingham in Jefferson, and the city of Whitehall in Lowndes Counties. They also create a powerful new state agency with police powers that regulates gambling and would eventually shut down unlicensed gambling facilities across the state.

That is where the similarities end. The House bill allowed sports betting, electronic gambling, and full casinos at the legacy gambling halls plus the PCI facilities in Elmore, Montgomery, and Escambia Counties. The Senate bill would not allow Class I casinos. It also would not allow sports betting, electronic bingo machines, or classic casino table games like roulette.

Neither bill had anything to bring horse racing back to Alabama even though it did allow gambling facilities to take bets on horse races in other states as well as allowed historical horse racing. There is pressure on legislators to do something for the Alabama horse industry in the gambling bill.

Multiple different divisions of the new gambling revenue have passed as the bill moved through the Legislature. The bill as amended by the Senate divided the revenues three ways: education, general fund, and roads and bridges. Albritton opposes that division because the revenues to the general fund would be insufficient to build a $billion megaprison in his home Escambia County. The Escambia County megaprison is a favored project for Albritton.

This legislation has been widely criticized even by people who favor an expansion of legalized gambling in the state. There is a concern that the state legislature is picking winners and losers by stating where gambling centers can go. The Mayor of Birmingham Randall Woodfin had asked for a casino to be sited in downtown Birmingham to give the city two casinos. The downtown casino was a proposal that the Senate rejected.

At this point, if the conference committee can produce a compromise bill at all, it should come next week.

Both Houses of the Legislature would have to approve any new version of the gambling bill.

If the legislation does pass, it would still have to be voted on by the voters.

This is another area where the two Houses disagree on when that vote would occur. In the House bill it would be on the November 5 general election. The Senate bill had the vote in a special referendum in September. This will be an issue that the conference committee will have to address.

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