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Gambling bill's failure impacts legislative session

On Thursday, the Alabama Legislature finally wrapped up after 30 legislative days. The biggest issues going into the session were dealing with obscene and/or age inappropriate materials in the children's sections of public libraries, protecting women and girls in public places from men and boys pretending to be girls, a proposed rewrite of the state's ethics laws, and legislative action to address the stalled Alabama medical cannabis program; but all of those issues were overshadowed by a controversial rewrite of the Alabama Constitution to expand legal gambling in the state. Ultimately, the clumsy way that the gambling bill was written and pushed on legislators contributed to no action on all of these other issues.

It all began over a year ago in the closing weeks of the 2023 Legislative session. A bipartisan group of powerful legislators in the House of Representatives seized on gambling expansion as a means to increase state revenues so that they could fund a diverse range of new spending priorities including: building a megaprison in Escambia County, increasing mental health services, rural healthcare, advancing technical education, and more. Polling showed that most Alabamians supported a state lottery and there would be enough money to spread around the state that powerful influence shapers in Montgomery were largely in support of the bill. Alabama Governor Ivey (R) came out strongly in favor of passing gambling legislation in her state of the state speech kicking off the legislative session.

Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) appointed Rep. Andy Whitt (R-Harvest) as Chairman of the House Study Committee on Gaming. Whitt's leadership style and paranoia would play a huge role in events that played out with the saga of the doomed gambling bill. Whitt's committee never met in public. There were no public hearings, no public announcements, no opportunity to hear from the public, no attempt to build consensus, no transparency whatsoever, and no attempt to ever even pretend to obtain the consent of the governed on this legacy legislation. To this day Whitt's committee has not released a single videotape of any of the proceedings or even the minutes of even one of those months of meetings they held, even after the press asked for both. Who met with the secretive committee and when remains a closely guarded secret to this day. Most members of the House were kept in the dark about the bill the secret gaming committee was writing. More importantly, virtually everyone in the Alabama Senate was shut out from having any input. This would ultimately play out in a big way in the 2024 session.

Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City) was chosen to be the sponsor. It was the first time that Blackshear had carried such a complicated and controversial piece of legislation. Senator Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) would carry the bill in the Senate. Whereas Blackshear was known mostly as a loyal soldier for Ledbetter, Albritton had carried numerous controversial pieces of legislation. Albritton, who has chaired the general budget committee, had sponsored gambling bills in the past. He was also a candidate for Congress.

After months of secret meetings and backdoor negotiations Blackshear unveiled his gambling bill. Legislators were given less than 24 hours to review the bill before it was unveiled in a press conference. The constitutional amendment required a supermajority in both Houses of the Legislature to pass.

The bill would have given the state a lottery, as many as ten casinos, shut down dozens of unlicensed gambling establishments, including bingo, sports gambling, an Alabama Gaming Commission with vast police powers, casinos in Mobile, Greene, Macon, Houston, Jefferson, and Lowndes Counties. The bill also required the Governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch band of Creek Indians (PCI). PCI, "the tribe", operates three casinos in Montgomery, Elmore, and Escambia (Albritton's home county) Counties. To incentivize the Indians, to agree to a compact in which they give up revenue to the state (they currently pay the state nothing) Ivey could offer them a fourth casino, in North Jackson County (Ledbetter's district).

The first crack in the foundation of the bill came when Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin came to Montgomery lobbying for the tenth casino to go in downtown Birmingham near I-65 and the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center (BJCC). PCI openly campaigned for the Birmingham casino and hinted they wouldn't support the bill without it.

The 320-page constitutional amendment and its 300-page enabling bill were both rapidly pushed through the House through an off mixture of intimidation, horse trading, and personal charisma by Ledbetter and House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville), who both expended an awful lot of political capital on this.

Whereas the House quietly rubberstamped the legislation, despite some members having deep misgivings with elements of the bill, it was dead on arrival in the Senate. Full casinos with table games, poker tournaments, roulette wheels, and legalized sports betting all over the state was too much for the Senate. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) came out against it. While the term limited Ivey's influence is waning as she enters her eighth year as Speaker, Marshall is quietly waging a very noticeable campaign with eyes on 2028 and likely the Governor's mansion. Marshall's principled opposition to the bill was noticed in the Senate and beyond with Republicans across the state, while most of his rivals were strangely silent in this debate.

The Senate's disdain for the bloated House gambling bill was palpable when the Senate replaced Blackshear's $1.2 billion gambling expansion bill with a more modest proposal to create a state lottery, negotiate a compact with the Tribe, and allow the legacy outlaw casinos in Greene, Lowndes, Birmingham, Macon, and Houston Counties to remain open playing historical horse racing machines (HHRs). All other illegal casinos would be shut down. Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills) had to have assurances that there would be no second casino in Birmingham – just the Birmingham Racecourse, owned by the influential McGregor family. The substitute bill was further amended on the Senate floor; but did pass. Members of the Senate warned the House that this was all that they would agree to. That bill would have brought in about $350 million to the state, with most of that coming from the lottery.

The House could simply have concurred with the Senate voted to pass the bill as is and then declared victory and went home to tell voters they could vote on the lottery. Blackshear, Whitt, Daniels, and House leaders made the fateful decision to non-concur with the Senate bill, and appoint a conference committee to bridge the gulf between the two bills and create a third gambling bill. Whitt, Blacksher, and Sam Jones (D-Mobile) who had represented House Democrats on the secret gaming committee were appointed to the committee. Senate Pro Tem. Greg Reed (R-Jasper), who has voted for every gambling bill that has ever come to the Senate floor, said that the Senate bill was their best bill and there wasn't room for negotiation. After a couple of weeks, Reed relented and appointed Albritton, Sen. Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) and Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) to the conference Committee. After a couple more weeks of heated negotiation, the conference committee voted 6 to 0 in favor of a third bill on Tuesday, April 30.

This bill would have allowed a lottery, there was no sports betting, no table games, and there was a compact with the Indians, but only on lands that the Tribe held in trust on February 6, 2024. The governor had no authority to authorize a tenth casino ever. The outlaw casinos that would receive licenses could play all manner of electronic games – bringing their facilities on par with PCI.

The House passed the gambling bill. Since it was a constitutional amendment, it took 21 of the 35 Senators voting yes for it pass. Gambling proponents believed they had 22 votes. It appeared that the bill would pass; but on the first (and only) vote it was defeated 20 to 15 – one short of passage. Sen. Lance Bell (R-Springville) voted no and more importantly Albritton voted no.

Without making any of this public, PCI turned on the bill. Albritton afterwards said that "there was nothing in it" for them – even though Albritton had voted for it in the conference committee just hours earlier. With the Tribe having flipped from being the most prominent moneyed supporters of the bill to being the most prominent moneyed opponents of the bill gambling was going nowhere in the 2024 session.

House sponsors were shocked. Blackshear could not contain his rage and in the last days of the session made a point of filibustering Senate bills in retaliation for what the Senators had done to his gambling bill. The Senate retaliated by refusing to work on House bills. At one point House negotiators on a conference committee on legislation to bring an ag exhibition center to Warrior in Jefferson County voted no and walked out effectively killing the bill (they thought) because the sponsor Sen. Shey Shelnutt (R-Trussville) had been a no vote on their gaming legislation. This is also a priority bill for the powerful Alabama Farmers Federation who also had opposed the gambling bill. A furious Shelnutt then began filibustering all House bills Tuesday in retaliation. Both Houses adjourned early on Tuesday. On Wednesday Shelnutt's bill received final approval and the filibuster was ended.

On Wednesday the Senate Judiciary Committee killed a controversial House bill that would have rewritten the state's landmark 2010 ethics bill. The Senators substituted the House bill with one they wrote themselves on Tuesday and then elected not to bring it out of committee at all. It was another win for Marshall who steadfastly opposed the rewrite of the ethics bill. More bills, including the election recount bill, the library bill, the what is a woman bill, etc. went down as both Houses finally just voted to pass the education budget and go home with six hours left on the last day of the session.

There were back-channel negotiations Thursday trying to resurrect the gambling bill, but those effort proved to be fruitless. PCI's three casinos remains the only legal gambling in this state outside of parimutuel betting at dog tracks and charity bingo on paper cards. Some facilities operate HHR machines but those are legally dubious at best. Alabama remains one of the few states with no lottery.

Some gambling proponents had wanted Ivey to call a special session to resurrect gambling; but on Thursday she released a statement saying that if they can't agree, why bring them back.

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