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Senate could vote to reconsider controversial gambling bill today

On Tuesday night a controversial constitutional amendment that would expand legalized gambling to as many as ten casinos across the state and created a lottery met an unexpected defeat in the Alabama Senate by just one vote.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed (R-Jasper) indicated to reporters on Tuesday night that there would be a revote after the measure failed 20 to 15. Since this is a constitutional amendment, it requires a three fifths majority to pass both Houses.

The House of Representatives narrowly passed the conference committee version of the bill earlier when establishment Republicans led by Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) joined forces with Democrats to ram the bill through over the objections of conservative Republicans in a 72 to 29 vote.

The Senate leadership was attempting the same maneuver when it unexpectedly all went wrong Tuesday night. The Senate carried over the controversial gambling legislation following the surprise outcome.

House Bill 151 is sponsored by State Representative Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City).

The House version of HB151 would have been a much larger expansion of gambling across the state. The Senate scaled that back to something much more manageable; but the House rejected the Senate's changes forcing the bill to a six-member conference committee.

On Tuesday, the conference committee finally approved their version of the gambling bill in a 6 to 0 vote.

It authorized the Governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creek Band of Indians (PCI) who legally operate (under the federal Indian Gaming Act) three casinos in Montgomery, Wetumpka, and Atmore. What the governor is supposed to give the tribe for the tribe to voluntarily hand over a large portion of their revenues to the state of Alabama has never been made clear in any of the three versions of this legislation. The House bill had given the tribe a new casino in North Alabama. There were considerable disagreements over whether that would be in north Jackson County or in the City of Birmingham right off of I-65 as PCI and the Mayor of Birmingham Randall Woodfin argued for. Senator Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills), who has always been a yes vote on gambling, objected to the Birmingham casino and that was blocked in the Senate version of the bill. The conference committee version of the bill also nixed any future expansion plans for the Poarch Creeks by specifically limiting the compact to tribal lands that the Indians held in trust as of February 6, 2024. There would be no expansion of Indian gaming to north Alabama. Meanwhile the conference committee version of the bill would have legalized competitors in Houston, Macon, Mobile, Jefferson, Lowndes, and two in Greene Counties to allow the same kinds of electronic gambling that the Poarch Creeks currently operate. Those competitors currently either operate historical horse racing machines (a dubious claim of legality at best) or illegally operate electronic bingo machines which the Alabama Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled to be illegal in the state. The legislation would create an Alabama Gambling Commission with vast state police powers to close illegal gambling operations across Alabama including paper bingo, card games, etc.

After spending vast sums of money to push this legislation, PCI apparently felt that they could not live with the terms of the conference committee version of the bill.

Senator Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) represents the tribe in Escambia County. He carried the bill in the Senate and his no vote Tuesday night on the conference committee version of the bill he voted for in conference committee hours earlier shocked everyone, especially the Governor's office – which has been pushing gambling legislation virtually the entire time that Kay Ivey has been Governor.

Albritton explaining his sudden reversal on the bill to reporters said that the legislation restricted PCI and put them in an "unsustainable position economically."

The bill also creates a state lottery with lottery proceeds going towards education. The money from the ten casinos would go to the state general fund, including construction of a megaprison in Albritton's district. Completing that $billion prison in the next six years without more revenue to the general fund appears to be problematic at best.

The Governor's staff are hoping to resurrect the failed bill. They are reportedly putting pressure on Albritton to change his vote again while they are negotiating with the tribe on what that compact would look like to get them back on board with the bill. The governor's staff is also putting pressure on freshman Senator Lance Bell (R-Pell City) and have reportedly threatened to withhold road improvements in St. Clair County if Bell, who voted for the Senate version, but not the conference committee version of the bill, does not change his vote.

Reed could bring a revote on this legislation as early as Thursday at 10:00 a.m. but it would be doomed if the 15 Senators who voted no on Tuesday stick to their principles and won't be intimidated by threats from the Governor.

If a gambling bill passes, as it is a constitutional amendment, it would still have to be ratified by the voters in an August 20 special election.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email brandonmreporter@gmail.com

 

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