By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Last week came and went and no gaming bills were brought to the floor of either House. With only four legislative days left, time has run out on gaming legislation.
When this legislative session began, the State was struggling to deal with a budget shortfall in the State General Fund (SGF) budget due to the loss of $437 million the voters let the legislature raid from the Alabama Trust Fund. That money is gone and to replace it (and then some) Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) was promoting $541 million in new taxes to fund the largest General Fund budget in State history. That plan never had any public support in the State legislature and died from lack of action in committee this week.
The House Democratic Caucus proposed a plan removing the Federal tax deduction, dropping the Sales tax on groceries, negotiating a compact with the Poarch Creek band of Indians to allow class three gaming at three casinos, raising the cigarette tax, allowing casinos at four dog tracks, and passing a state lottery with proceeds going to the General Fund. This complicated plan would have required a constitutional amendment to set up the lottery and approve the casinos. House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) and the Democratic Caucus in general have been long time lottery and casino advocates. That plan also died this week from lack of committee action.
Senate President Del Marsh (R-Anniston) then proposed his own plan allowing the casinos, the Indian Compact, and the lottery with no tax increases. Sen. Marsh’s bill narrowly received a favorable report by a Senate Committee. Sen. Marsh said last week that he would ask the Rules Committee to bring his bill to the floor if could get enough support for it to pass. That support never came and on Thursday even Marsh admitted as much. Marsh told reporters that gambling is likely to come up in a special session this summer. Sen. Marsh said that his plan does have a lot of support among the Senators.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard’s (R-Auburn) plan to give PCI a monopoly on gaming and pass $150 million in new taxes on car sales, cigarettes, lube oil, car leases, business privileges, etc., also stalled when it became apparent that the Senate would never pass Hubbard’s plan and was unlikely to get the votes needed to even get out of the House. Like the Marsh, Bentley, and Ford plans, the Hubbard plan hasn’t got to the floor of either House. Under formal State Senate rules, Thursday was too late for the House to send revenue bills to the Senate, thus those house originated revenue bills are dead for this legislative session.
Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Chairman Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) just this week proposed a bill, SB496, that moves $80 million in sales tax revenue from the Education Trust Fund to the General Fund. Like the many other plans it also has not gone to the floor. A number of Senators objected to raiding the ETF for Medicaid and Corrections. Sen. Marsh questioned to reporters how that was even possible since the ETF is done and has already been sent to Gov. Bentley with that $80 million as part of the over $5.9 billion revenue package in the ETF. The Senate placed Orr’s controversial legislation on it’s calendar for Thursday but never acted on it before adjourning for the day. A number of revenue bills are still alive in the process but Sen. Marsh told reporters that many Senators objected to doing anything that might take the pressure off of the legislature as they look for solutions in a future special session.
Several legislators have said that the state should not raise taxes or legalize gambling. Sen. Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) introduced a plan late last week to address this crisis without raising either taxes or doing a deal with gambling syndicates.
At this point, the Alabama Political Reporter does not know whether that Special Session will be called to pass gambling bills, tax increases, serious budgetary reforms, or some mixture of taxes and gambling. Most sources now expect the Senate to eventually pass some SGF version close to the $1.62 austerity SGF budget, House Bill 135, passed by the House. After a conference committee, that bill will be sent to the Governor. As promised, he will veto that budget and the legislature will override the Bentley veto. Gov. Bentley will then call a special session sometime this summer and we can do all of this all over again.