By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Gov. Robert Bentley announced the creation of a new Advisory Council on Gaming Monday. Well into his second term, the governor hopes his new council will give recommendations on how to settle the seemingly eternal controversy of gaming in the State.
“The subject of gaming in Alabama has been the subject of dispute and controversy in Alabama for years,” Bentley said Monday in a press conference on Goat Hill. “It has been a very complex controversy for a number of years. A considerable amount of time, a considerable amount of money has been spent dealing with this issue. This issue is not going away.”
Eleven appointed members will sit on the advisory council. Bentley will appoint seven of the members. House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh will appoint four members of the board.
McCutcheon and Marsh must appoint one Democrat and one Republican a piece from their chambers.
In addition to five at-large appointments from the governor, he will also appoint one member of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association and one member of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association.
In the future, he can also make additional appointments if necessary.
The creation of the board is an attempt to dampen sensation surrounding gambling and other forms of gaming in the state, insiders on the topic told APR, following the reopening of Milton McGregor’s VictoryLand in Macon County and the death of Bentley’s lottery bill during the summer special session.
Reports have suggested that casino interests from south-central Alabama and Mississippi could have been responsible for tampering with the outcome of Bentley’s lottery bill.
Despite a recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling running counter to him, McGregor reopened VictoryLand Sept. 13 to a large crowd in Shorter, Alabama, where residents and local leaders have said the casino’s closing at the hands of state officials crippled the local economy.
Only weeks after the casino reopened, Bentley and Attorney General Luther Strange again tried to shut the operation down — sending notice to all the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, but specifically Macon County’s, that gaming and electronic gambling are still illegal in the state.
And Wednesday, Strange still seemed opposed to the idea of gaming in the state.
“The situation in Macon County, Lowndes County and elsewhere around the state is not about gambling; it’s about the rule of law,” Strange said in a statement Wednesday. “And on gambling, Alabama’s laws are clear. In March of this year, the Alabama Supreme Court issued the latest in a long line of opinions declaring ‘electronic bingo’ unlawful in Macon County and the entire state of Alabama.”
Bentley and Strange essentially ordered local law enforcement to shut down the gaming operations, but so far, they haven’t.
“My office stands ready to assist Governor Bentley and local law enforcement in making sure Alabama laws are upheld,” Strange said.
Despite the talk, Bentley said it’s safe to say there won’t be any raid on VictoryLand any time in the near future.
Bentley’s advisory council will evaluate current State laws, including the Alabama Constitution, and local laws on gambling, which have been used by sheriffs and district attorneys to justify selective enforcement of anti-gambling codes.
The council will also have to investigate court precedents as well, considering in the last several years there have been more than three different rulings on electronic bingo and gambling in the state from the Alabama Supreme Court.
And there’s no consensus among the judiciary either, because locally-elected circuit judges have issued starkly different rulings from that of the statewide-elected Supreme Court.
The governor also said his council will investigate “best practices in other states,” estimates for taxes generated from gambling and the tax regulations and structures used in other states when it comes to gambling and gaming.
Recent efforts to legalize electronic gaming in several counties, including Macon County, have been proposed in the Statehouse, but have passed neither chamber. In a press conference Wednesday, Bentley acknowledged the path toward some sort of consensus on the issue is narrow and uphill.
“I want this council to take a comprehensive look at the issue,” Bentley said. “The state of Alabama needs a fresh look at this issue. Past efforts have not solved this problem, and we need a clear path forward on gaming and games of chance.”
The advisory board will be appointed soon, the governor said, and they will produce their first finding to the Bentley, Marsh and McCutcheon by the end of next January.
Two members of the council are set, though: Bentley’s new finance director, Clinton Carter, and Jim Byard, director of the Alabama Department of Community and Economic Affairs.
With the appointment of the new council, the question still remains: Can the governor get Alabamians to agree on gaming?