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Greenetrack supporters, on his office steps, demand a meeting with attorney general

Chip Brownlee

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—Standing on the attorney general’s office steps Tuesday afternoon, Southern Christian Leadership Conference officials and other GreeneTrack Casino supporters demanded a meeting with Attorney General Luther Strange to discuss their pending Alabama Supreme Court Case and the future of gaming in Greene County.

The Eutaw, Alabama, gaming center filed a brief before the Alabama Supreme Court last month in an appeal over the facility’s electronic bingo machines. Greenetrack argues the Attorney General is asking the Supreme Court to overstep its boundaries.

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“This Court has long cautioned against the very thing that the State now asks this Court to engage in: judicial activism,” attorneys for Greenetrack wrote. “Alabama law is crystal clear that a court is not free to rewrite a constitutional provision or substitute its own judgment or moral musings for that of the Legislature and the people of Alabama — even in matters involving bingo.”

Today, SCLC President Dr. Charles Steele Jr., State Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) and GreeneTrack CEO Luther Wynn spoke to a small crowd on Strange’s doorstep. The SCLC — a civil rights organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — has taken on GreeneTrack’s dispute with the State government as an opportunity to launch their “Poor People’s Campaign,” which they hope will uplift impoverished communities across Alabama and the US.

They’re starting with gambling in Greene County.

“We have come back to Montgomery because of the injustices we see in Greene County and throughout the rest of Alabama,” Steele said. “We’re very concerned about Attorney General Strange. He has been insensitive to the needs of economic development in West Alabama and the Black Belt. That’s why the SCLC is in existence. We’re about jobs and justice and equality for all God’s children.”

The case is not about gaming, Steele said. It is about the attorney general’s repeated attempts to prevent economic development in Greene County — a heavily African American county in the State’s Black Belt Region — by going down hard on GreeneTrack and its gaming operation.

“We’ve come back to let Attorney General Strange know that we’re not going to sit idly by and let economic development go,” Steele said. “We’re proud of GreeneTrack in West Alabama, providing jobs and education for the people there.”

In their November Supreme Court brief, Greenetrack argued that Amendment 743 of the Alabama Constitution, which passed in 2003, authorizes the use and play of electronic bingo in Greene County. The Attorney General’s office said the machines were not in compliance with the amendment.

Singleton, who represents Greene County and portions of other Black Belt counties, said he hopes Strange will change his tune and meet with the men to discuss GreeneTrack in terms of economic development for Greene County.

“In Greene County, we saw this as an economic development piece,” Singleton said. “This is not about gaming to us. This is about quality of life for people who live in Greene County. We, the people of Greene County, made our voices heard in a Constitutional Amendment — the highest law in the state of Alabama. The people stated, knowing what they were doing, that they wanted to bring electronic bingo to the area.”

The State filed an appeal on June 27 after Circuit Judge Houston Brown ruled the State improperly seized GreeneTrack’s bingo machines in a 2010 raid. Brown said the State failed to prove the 825 bingo machines were illegal under Alabama law and that they had to return the machines within 30 days of his June 22 ruling.

“The State of Alabama later came and illegally shut us down,” Singleton said. “We believe, fundamentally, that that is wrong. We’re here to say to Attorney General strange that we just want to sit down with you. Talk to you. … We think that the path that you’ve taken has been wrong. You’ve wronged the people of the State of Alabama, and more specifically the people of Greene County.”

Attorney General Luther Strange said Tuesday that the State would continue litigating the case because Alabama law prohibits gambling.

“The Attorney General is responsible for enforcing State law including the prohibition of illegal gambling,” Strange said. “After it was determined that GreeneTrack was operating electronic bingo machines in violation of the law, the Attorney General’s Office took the casino operators to court to determine their legality.”

The Supreme Court doesn’t have the authority to rewrite State constitutional amendments, attorneys for Greenetrack have said. The speakers today reiterated those statements. Amendment 743 is the only amendment to the Alabama Constitution that specifically defines bingo and bingo equipment, and it applies only to Greene County, they said.

But Strange said the voters would need to approve a new amendment to legalize GreeneTrack’s machines because the State believes the casino’s current machines are not in compliance with Amendment 743.

“The case is currently awaiting a final ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court,” Strange said. “If the voters of Greene County disagree with the Alabama Supreme Court or want to legalize new forms of gambling, then they should direct their concerns to the Governor and the Legislature to have the law clarified or changed.”

The SCLC and the other GreeneTrack supporters still believe the current amendment legalizing bingo in Greene County covers GreeneTrack’s machines, Wynn said.

“We voted for and passed legislation in Greene County to allow for electronic bingo,” Wynn said. “It’s a clear definition. Our legislation gives a clear definition to electronic bingo. It’s the only amendment passed in the State that defines bingo. For Strange to go to the Supreme Court in search of a definition, that causes us to have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to fight that. It’s wrong for GreeneTrack, and it’s wrong for the State of Alabama.”

Steele, Wynn and Singleton said Strange’s continued opposition to gaming in majority-black communities stems from ever-present racism and classism.

“It’s nothing but right out, blatant racism and classism,” Steele said. “Dr. King fought both of them. We have more racism and classism today than we had 50 years ago, and we shouldn’t be like that. … If you help Greene County, you help the world. … It would give them hope, as well as the opportunity to have jobs and provide for their families. What more can you ask for?”

West Alabama and the Black Belt counties are the poorest in the State and some of the poorest communities in the country, Singleton said. And the State has forgotten those communities, he said.

“We have not gotten economic development,” Singleton said. “We have a governor from West Alabama, but when we talk to the Department of Commerce about bringing jobs to that area, they’re just not coming. So we made legislation to create an industry for ourselves. We’re pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. This is not about gaming. It’s about economic development. When they shut us down, they sent us the food stamp and welfare trucks the very next day.

“Instead of sending us jobs to replace these, they sent us another social aide. We don’t want the aid. We want to work. We want our people to work and not depend on the system.”

The State, including the all-white Supreme Court and the white attorney general, wouldn’t try to oppose economic development or gaming like GreeneTrack if they were in Shelby County or Baldwin County, Wynn said.

“They don’t need Greene County or West Alabama to get elected to that office, so they pass us off,” Wynn said. “This amendment is the only one that’s being challenged. You have all kind of amendments to the constitution. Bob Riley was bought off by the Mississippi Indians. Bob Riley brought in and supported Luther Strange. You ask if it is about racism? It’s the only constitutional amendment being challenged. It’s the ones in the black counties like Greene County, Macon County, Lowndes County. You decide if it’s racism.”

Amendment 743:

1. BINGO – That specific kind of game commonly known as bingo in which prizes are awarded on the basis of designated numbers or symbols on a card or electronic marking machine conforming to numbers or symbols selected at random.

2. EQUIPMENT – The receptacle and numbered objects drawn from it, the master board upon which such objects are placed as drawn, the cards or sheets bearing numbers or other designations to be covered and the objects used to cover them or electronic card marking machines, and the board or signs, however operated, used to announce or display the numbers or designations as they are drawn.

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House passes General Fund Budget

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama House of Representatives passed the state General Fund Budget on Tuesday.

The General Fund Budget for the 2019 fiscal year is Senate Bill 178. It is sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose. State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, carried the budget on the House floor. Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

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Clouse said, “Last year we monetized the BP settlement money and held over $97 million to this year.”

Clouse said that the state is still trying to come up with a solution to the federal lawsuit over the state prisons. The Governor’s Office has made some progress after she took over from Gov. Robert Bentley. The supplemental we just passed added $30 million to prisons.

The budget adds $50 million to the Department of Corrections.

Clouse said that the budget increased the money for prisons by $55,680,000 and includes $4.8 million to buy the privately-owned prison facility in Perry County.

Clouse said that the budget raises funding for the judicial system and raises the appropriation for the Forensic Sciences to $11.7 million.

The House passed a committee substitute so the Senate is either going to have to concur with the changes made by the House or a conference committee will have to be appointed. Clouse told reporters that he hoped that it did not have to go to conference.

Clouse said that the budget had added $860,000 to hire more Juvenile Probation Officers. After talking to officials with the court system that was cut in half in the amendment. The amendment also includes some wording the arbiters in the court lawsuit think we need.

The state General Fund Budget, SB178, passed 98-1.

Both budgets have now passed the Alabama House of Representatives.

The 2019 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2018.

In addition to the SGF, the House also passed a supplemental appropriation for the current 2018 budget year. SB175 is also sponsored by Pittman and was carried by Clouse on the floor of the House.

SB175 includes $30 million in additional 2018 money for the Department of Corrections. The Departmental Emergency Fund, the Examiners of Public Accounts, the Insurance Department and Forensic Sciences received additional money.

Clouse said, “We knew dealing with the federal lawsuit was going to be expensive. We are adding $80 million to the Department of Corrections.”

State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow, R-Red Bay, said that state Department of Forensics was cut from $14 million to $9 million. “Why are we adding money for DA and courts if we don’t have money for forensics to provide evidence? if there is any agency in law enforcement or the court system that should be funded it is Forensics.”

The supplemental 2018 appropriation passed 80 to 1.

The House also passed SB203. It was sponsored by Pittman and was carried in the House by State Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton. It raises securities and registration fees for agents and investment advisors. It increases the filing fees for certain management investment companies. Johnson said that those fees had not been adjusted since 2009.

The House also passed SB176, which is an annual appropriation for the Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The bill requires that the agency have an operations plan, audited financial statement, and quarterly and end of year reports. SB176 is sponsored by Pittman and was carried on the House floor by State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatham.

The House passed Senate Bill 185 which gives state employees a cost of living increase in the 2019 budget beginning on October 1. It was sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville and was being carried on the House floor by state Rep. Dimitri Polizos, R-Montgomery.

Polizos said that this was the first raise for non-education state employees in nine years. It is a 3 percent raise.

SB185 passed 101-0.

Senate Bill 215 gives retired state employees a one time bonus check. SB215 is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Guntersville.

Rich said that retired employees will get a bonus $1  for every month that they worked for the state. For employees who retired with 25 years of service that will be a $300 one time bonus. A 20-year retiree would get $240 and a 35-year employee would get $420.

SB215 passed the House 87-0.

The House passed Senate Bill 231, which is the appropriation bill increase amount to the Emergency Forest Fire and Insect and Disease Fund. SB231 is sponsored by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and was carried on the House floor by state Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette.

State Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chathom, said, “Thank you for bringing this bill my district is full of trees and you never know when a forest fire will hit.

SB231 passed 87-2.

The state of Alabama is unique among the states in that most of the money is earmarked for specific purposes allowing the Legislature little year-to-year flexibility in moving funds around.

The SGF includes appropriations for the Alabama Medicaid Agency, the courts, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Department of Corrections, mental health, and most state agencies that are no education related. The Alabama Department of Transportation gets their funding mostly from state fuel taxes.

The Legislature also gives ALEA a portion of the gas taxes. K-12 education, the two year college system, and all the universities get their state support from the education trust fund (ETF) budget. There are also billions of dollars in revenue that are earmarked for a variety of purposes that does not show up in the SGF or ETF budgets.

Examples of that include the Public Service Commission, which collects utility taxes from the industries that it regulates. The PSC is supported entirely by its own revenue streams and contributes $13 million to the SGF. The Secretary of State’s Office is entirely funded by its corporate filing and other fees and gets no SGF appropriation.

Clouse warned reporters that part of the reason this budget had so much money was due to the BP oil spill settlement that provided money for the 2018 budget and $97 million for the 2019 budget. Clouse said they elected to make a $13 million repayment to the Alabama Trust fund that was not due until 2020 but that is all that was held over for 2020.

Clouse predicted that the Legislature will have to make some hard decisions about revenue in next year’s session.

 

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Day Care bill delayed for second time on Senate floor, may be back Thursday

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

The day care bill, which would license certain day care centers in Alabama, was once again delayed on the state Senate floor after one lawmaker requested more information.

Its brief appearance Tuesday ended with state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, saying a compromise had not yet been worked out with the bill’s detractors.

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Alabama’s Senate has been hesitant to act on the legislation because of complaints of state Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville, who has been an opponent of the bill since its introduction last year. The bill’s delay on Tuesday marks the second time its been taken off the Senate’s agenda.

The bill has had a rocky time in this year’s session, but the bill’s sponsor state Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said she is still confident about its passage out of the Legislature.

Warren, D-Tuskegee, filed the bill this session with the support of influential lawmakers including Gov. Kay Ivey, who told reporters last year that she though all day cares should be licensed.

Mainly sparked by the death of 5-year-old boy in the care of a unlicensed day care worker, the bill had great momentum coming into this year’ session.

Despite the growing support from lawmakers, Religious groups had concerns that the bill would increase state-sponsored reach into religious day cares in churches and non-profit groups.

Spearheading the dissenters was Alabama Citizens Action Program, a conservative religious-based PAC.

Warren, proponents, and ALCAP announced a compromise to the bill while it was still in the Alabama House.

Announced by ALCAP originally, the new bill was a weaker version in that it did not require that all day cares in the state be regulated. Instead, religious-based day cares would only need to be registered if they received federal funds. At a Senate committee meeting in February, Warren said a similar requirement was about to come from federal law in Congress.

The bill moved through the House in a overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal and passed unanimously out of a Senate committee a few weeks ago.

Warren, speaking to reporters after its passage from the House, said she was unsure if the bill would encounter resistance in the upper chamber.

It was the Senate that killed the daycare bill last year amid a cramped last day where senators took the bill off the floor. The bill may face similar complications this year, as lawmakers seem to be preparing to adjourn within a few weeks.

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Fantasy sports bill fails on Senate floor

Sam Mattison

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By Samuel Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Would-be Fantasy Sports players in Alabama will have to wait to legally play in the state following a Senate vote on Tuesday.

The Alabama Senate decisively killed a bill to exempt fantasy sports from the state’s prohibition on gambling.

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Not even entertaining a debate on the Senate floor, the proposal was killed during a vote for the Budget Isolation Resolution, which is usually a formality vote preluding a debate.

Fantasy sports are contests where participants select players from real teams to compete on fantasy teams using the real-world players’ stats.

Since 2016, the practice has been illegal in Alabama following a legal decision by the Attorney General’s Office that categorized it as gambling.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville, predicted the bill’s failure during a committee meeting two weeks ago, where the bill passed unanimously.

Sen. Paul Sanford speaks to reporters after a Senate Committee meeting on Feb. 28, 2018. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

Speaking to reporter’s after the committee meeting, Sanford said the decision to file the bill was mainly a philosophical belief that the practice shouldn’t be illegal.

Sanford, a fantasy sports player before its ban, said that fantasy sports are a way to bring people closer together and not a means to win money. The Huntsville senator is not seeking re-election.

The bill’s failure in the Senate follows its trajectory last year too. A similar version of the bill, also sponsored by Sanford, failed in the Senate during the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Since Sanford is retiring, it is unclear if the bill will even come back next session, or if it will even have a Senate sponsor.

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Greenetrack supporters, on his office steps, demand a meeting with attorney general

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