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In Case You Missed It

Macon County Voters Ignored in VictoryLand Case

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY— The history of Constitutional Amendment 744 paints a compelling picture of what those, who worked for and against its passage, thought it would mean for the future of gambling in Macon County. Advertisements and statements on both sides made it clear that electronic bingo was at issue.

With the signing of Executive Order 13, Governor Robert Bentley signaled his desire to put an end to the bingo wars begun by Gov. Bob Riley, and continued under the Office of Attorney General Luther Strange.

The clear winners of Riley’s bingo war are the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI), whose gaming operation have grown exponentially as a result of his actions and those of Strange.

The battle over bingo has primarily centered on VictoryLand, owned by Milton McGregor. At the heart of the matter is Constitutional Amendment 744, which was passed, in part, as an effort to allow electronic bingo in Macon County to compete with growing economic threat from tribal gaming facilities, which were first to adopted electronic bingo machines in the State.

The day after signing Executive Order 13, Bentley raised the Constitutional Amendments issue on bingo saying, “We have constitutional amendments in two counties —we have more than that but right now we are talking primarily about two counties and I believe constitutionally you should look at what the Constitution actually says they voted these in counties.”

As a State representative, Bentley voted yes on Constitutional Amendment 744 which, leaders from that community attest, allows electronic bingo or bingo in any form.

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Only two counties Greene and Macon have passed constitutional amendments allowing bingo since electronic machines have been available. These counties have held that the people voted to allow electronic bingo or bingo in any form, something that Riley and in recent years Strange’s office have denied.

But Gov. Bentley, a day after signing Executive Order 13, signaled that he draws a different conclusion from Riley and Bentley. However, Bentley has been telegraphing his thoughts publicly and privately that Macon County’s VictoryLand should be free to operate unmolested, because they have a constitutional right to do so.

Among some in law enforcement, including in the Attorney General’s office, this is action by the Governor is viewed as a political alliance of convenience. Of course, the same has been said of the Cornerstone ruling that allowed then Gov. Riley the extra legal authority to become a bingo hunter. Subsequently that power was transferred back to Strange in 2011 with Bentley’s signing of Executive Order 1.

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However, voter intent according to court documents, advertisement and even the amendments opponents point to the conclusion that the Macon Count amendment included electric bingo.

Before Amendment 744  was proposed or voted on,  PCI had been operating electronic bingo games at it casinos in Atmore, Montgomery, and Wetumpka starting around 2002.

Gambling, in the form of pari-mutuel wagering, had been legal in Macon County for nearly 30 years but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, revenues flowing into the county had begun to ebb, because of the rise of electronic bingo at PCI facilities. This prompted community leaders to look for other forms of gambling according to testimony given by Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford and others.

Electronic bingo games liked those at PCI facilities seem to hold the most promise, so legislation was put forward to approve a constitutional amendment authorizing a vote by the citizens of Macon County to allow such games.

HB660 calling for a vote on Amendment 744 passed the Legislature unanimously. However before the vote there was intense lobbying in and out of the Statehouse. The Christian Coalition of Alabama, lobbied against the bill asking Macon County to “Vote NO on Electronic Bingo Gaming Machines.” Flyers by the Christian Coalition bearing those headline were posted and handed out in the Statehouse prior to passage of HB660. In fact court records show flyers, bailouts, and handouts blanketed the community that said:

“VOTE YES FOR ELECTRONIC BINGO MACHINES ON TUESDAY NOV. 4th. VOTE YES ELECTRONIC BINGO. VOTE YES ON TUESDAY-NOV. 4th TO AUTHORIZE ALL FORMS OF BINGO PAPER CARD, ELECTRONIC CARD AND MACHINE BINGO. VOTE YES ON TUES-NOV. 4, 2003 TO AUTHORIZE ALL FORMS OF BINGO: PAPER CARD-ELECTRONIC-MACHINE BINGO FOR THE BETTERMENT OF MACON COUNTY.”

Before the vote on Amendment 744, the debate centered around four things: the approval of charity bingo for Macon County, the authorization of bingo in all forms the use of electronic games on tribal land which was having a negative impact on taxes generated by gambling at VictoryLand which, in turn, educational funding in Macon County; and a decision by the voters in Macon County to allow the operation of the same games as the PCI.

Here again, Ford and others have claimed that old fashioned paper bingo would not have given VictoryLand the means to compete with tribal facilities making the argument for paper bingo silly.

Macon County’s VictoryLand has remained closed while around the State others facilities operate the same machines without prosecution.

Last month, Circuit Court Judge William A. Shashy dismissed the State’s case against VictoryLand, citing a violation of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.

Strange stated that Shashy’s order did not address the issued raised in the VictoryLand cases, and has asked the Supreme Court to address the matter once and for all. The court seems willing to comply after issuing a stay of Shashy’s ruling pending appeal.

Gov. Bentley raised the issue of equal protection in Executive Order 13 saying, “Recent rulings have raised concern with the unequal enforcement of Alabama’s criminal laws, including gambling laws.” He questioned why the PCI could legally operate the same machines as VictoryLand. Federal Indian Gaming Law does not allow a tribe to operate any games which are not already legal within a state, raising the unanswered question Judge Shashy asked.

According to The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,  “the Tribes retain their authority to conduct, license, and regulate class II gaming so long as the state in which the Tribe is located permits such gaming…,” if the machines played at VictoryLand or Greenetrack are slot machines as agents for the Attorney General claimed in testimony, then federal law would make PCI operations illegal as well.

It is worth noting that the lead prosecutor for the State in the case against VictoryLand was Assistant Attorney General Henry T. “Sonny” Reagan and the chief investigator was former AG special agent Howard “Gene” Sisson. Both men were forced from their position because a internal investigation by the AG’s office found they had conspired to undermine the AG’s office and the criminal investigation into indicted Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard.

Gov. Bentley in Executive Order 13 cited the around $9 million in taxpayer’s money that has been spent prosecuting the bingo wars. Much of which has landed in the bank account of the law firm Bradly Arrant.

Now, at General Strange’s request, the VictoryLand case rests with the State Supreme Court. Against a background of political intrigue the State Supreme Court takes center stage. From Cornerstone to the recent Shashy ruling accusation of “activist judges” were heard on the differing sides. But, in the Heart of Dixie, distain for an activist court is generally heard only in measure to how the ruling affirms or denies the rights and wills of the State’s elites. Even strict constitutionalists have been accused of bending the law to fit their personal moral code and not the black letter of the law.

So, it is perhaps fitting in a State, where the sum total of justice is often the percentage of profit gained by certain individuals, that grave suspicions are cast on every act of politicos, judges, as to the issue of VictoryLand.

Gov. Bentley has ever so carefully danced to the edge of calling for a halt to the VictoryLand case, only to retreat and equivocate when pressed.

Attorney General Luther Strange, who is recovering from serious knee reconstruction surgery, has left the matter in the hands of his deputies.

What is certain, is that the opinion of the voters in Macon County have been ignored by everyone in authority.

 

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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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House OKs bill to clarify consulting contracts by state legislators

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to try to clarify how legislators accept consulting contracts under Alabama’s 2010 ethics law. Some pundits have suggested that House Bill 387 is actually designed to weaken the existing ethics law.

Sponsor state Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, argues that the legislation is merely a clarification and is intended to prevent legislators from inadvertently crossing the line into illegality.

Wingo said that his bill would require legislators to notify the Alabama Ethics Commission that they have entered into a consulting agreement in an area outside of their normal scope of work.

State Rep. Paul Beckman, R-Prattville, said, “I have never understood why members of this body were allowed to take contracts as consultants or counselors.”

Wingo said, “Never do I use the word counselor in my bill; it is consulting.”

Beckman asked, “Are we going to be getting into an area where  every time we turn around we create a bureaucratic nightmare where we have to go get an opinion. These opinions whether it is orally or written don’t hold up in a court of law.” Beckman said, “We are serving the people here but we get this admonition that we can still be a consultant if we get an opinion.”

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Wingo said, “This does not apply to professions where a member is currently licensed.”

Beckman said, “I would like to see more opinions coming out of the Ethics Commission. Right now we have the Ethics Commission competing with the Attorney General’s office over who has more authority.”

State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said,”This happened to a friend of mine. He just got out of prison. He was a state senator and had a written letter from the Ethics Commission which his lawyer read at trial and the jury convicted him anyway.”

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Rogers never named his friend, but reporters think he was talking about former state Sen. Edward Browning ‘E. B.’ McClain who spent over 22 years in the legislature until he was convicted on 47 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, bribery, and money laundry in 2009.

A federal jury found that McClain and the Rev. Samuel Pettagrue were guilty in a scheme where McClain would secure public funds for Pettagrue’s community programs and then receive a kickback once the funds were in hand. McClain was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison. McClain was not prosecuted under the Alabama ethics law as the state has a much weaker ethics statute then. The current ethics law was passed in 2010.

Rogers said, “If they offer me a consulting contract for a field like aerospace engineering that I know nothing about they are trying to pay me off. If you can already be a consultant for something you know about why would you seek a consulting contract for something you don’t know about.

Rogers this is how they can pay you off for your vote.”

State Rep. Artis “A.J.” McCampbell said, “I don’t like making changes to things like this because we get into things called unintended consequences.”

McCampbell was reading from the bill and Wingo said, “You are reading from the original version it has completely changed.” “We worked tirelessly on this bill with the Ethics Commission this is not a fly by night bill.”

“If a member of the legislature enters into a contract to do a consulting contract outside of their normal field of work this bill requires that they consult with the Ethics Commission first,” Wingo said. “It is up to the member to notify the Ethics Commission not to the company or person offering them the money.”

State Representative Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said, “Everybody but legislators are allowed to do contract work up to $30,000.”

Rep. Wingo said, “This is not intended to be a roadblock.”

State Representative Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, said, “The whole purpose of this is not to prevent members from doing work in your field.” “What you are doing is offering to protect me.”

State Representative John Knight, D-Montgomery, asked Wingo what the Alabama Attorney General said about this legislation.

Wingo replied, “I have not contacted the Attorney General.”

Knight responded, “Something from the Ethics Commission does not carry a lot of protection from the Attorney General. We have seen that in the past. I think the Attorney General and the Ethics Commission should be in agreement in the working on this.”

Wingo answered, “Maybe this is a first step.”

Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, asked, “Do we have anybody doing work outside of their regular scope of work?”

Wingo answered, “Yes I think so.”

Wingo said, “If we had had this bill four or five years ago maybe we could have been spared the embarrassment that this body experienced with the former Speaker.”

Wingo was referring to former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard who was convicted of 12 counts of felony ethics violations in June 2016. Ironically, Hubbard is largely responsible for creating the ethics law that he was found guilty of violating 11 times in his relentless pursuit of outside contracts and personal wealth.

Unlike McClain, however, Hubbard has not yet served any of this sentence.

House Bill 387 passed 67-0 with 26 legislators abstaining.

The bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.

(Original reporting by the Alabama Media Group’s Lisa Osborn in 2009 was consulted in this report.)

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