The people's voice of reason

House votes to reject Senate gambling bill

On Thursday, April 3 the Alabama House of Representatives passed a motion of nonconcurrence on the Senate's gaming substitute and will send the gambling bill to a six-member conference committee.

"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."

The House passed a controversial bill which would have created up to ten Class III casinos in the state with slot machines, table games, parimutuel betting, sports gambling, electronic bingo, and more. A new state agency with police powers would be created to regulate gambling in Alabama and close all of the illegal gambling operations in the state after 2027. Even Church raffles would be required to get a license from the state of Alabama. It also created a state lottery. The casinos would initially have been in Macon, Greene, Mobile and Houston Counties, as well as additional locations in the city limits of Birmingham in Jefferson County and the City of Whitehall in Lowndes County. The federally recognized Native American tribe: the Poarch band of Creek Indians (PCI) legally operate three electronic bingo casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka, and Montgomery. The House bill authorized the Governor to negotiate a compact with PCI. It also authorized the Governor to offer PCI a tenth casino spot in North Alabama as well as expanding their operations to Class III as an incentive for the Poarch Creeks to sign the compact to give up a portion of their revenues voluntarily in taxes to the state of Alabama. The voters would get to vote to ratify this constitutional amendment on November 5.

That massive bill was dead on arrival in the Alabama Senate as far too expansive.

The Senate substituted that bill in committee and then amended it eight times on the floor to move some form of gambling out of the Senate. The House could have simply concurred with the Senate bill and sent it to the voters; but a truculent House refused to accept the Senate's compromise bill. The big stumbling block for House leadership was that the state would make less money in the Senate package.

Rep. Andy Whitt chaired the House Gaming Study Group which has been meeting on gambling since the end of last year's session.

"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 Senate bill outlawed electronic bingo, sports wagering, and any sort of gambling over the internet. It authorized the Governor to do a compact with PCI, create a lottery, and allow the existing facilities to offer gambling on historical horse racing machines and parimutuel betting. It also set up an Alabama Gambling Commission with police powers and moved the referendum from the general election to a special referendum in September.

Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City) sponsored HB151 and HB152, the constitutional amendment and the enabling legislation said that the House bill was put together over months.

"More than 14 months went into crafting this package – the first comprehensive gaming plan to ever pass in the Alabama House of Representatives," said Rep. 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."

The Senate bill was much less expansive than the House bill.

"I have serious concerns with the Senate's substitute legislation," said Blackshear. "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."

Ledbetter appointed Whitt and Blackshear to the Committee as well as Rep. Sam Jones (D-Mobile) – all three of whom served on the House Study Committee on Gaming.

Ledbetter insisted that the people want to vote on gambling this year.

"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," said Ledbetter. I am hopeful that members of the House and Senate are successful in finding a compromise that positions them to do just that."

As of Wednesday, April 10 the Senate still had not appointed their three members of the conference committee.

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