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What is the Status of Gaming in Alabama?

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

A couple of weeks ago, to the surprise of many, Governor Robert Bentley announced at a press conference the formation of a gambling committee to explore the benefits and costs of legalizing some forms of gaming in Alabama.

While the move was met mostly with indifference from the majority of the State – a government committee doesn’t exactly inspire great excitement – it also seemed like a curious move from a Governor, who, along with Attorney General Luther Strange, had two weeks earlier signed off on a letter to district attorneys and sheriffs around the State, reminding them that electronic bingo is illegal in Alabama.

There were also specific letters to the sheriffs and DAs in Macon and Lowndes counties, where casinos – VictoryLand in Macon and Southern Star and White Hall in Lowndes – are currently operating electronic bingo machines.

But, at his press conference to announce the committee, Bentley struck a more understanding tone and was careful to note that the odd bingo laws in the State have resulted in confusion. He said he understood how Macon officials could believe that the electronic games are legal in that county.

It seemed to be a sharp turn for the Governor, and according to two sources close to Bentley, there was good reason. Those sources said Bentley was surprised to learn after the letter was released, that his personal attorney, Joe Espy, would be forced to resign because the letter created a conflict. Espy also represents VictoryLand and its owner Milton McGregor.

The Governor, the sources said, felt somewhat betrayed and wanted to make it clear that he was distancing himself from the AG’s office. The committee was a way to place a barrier between the two offices.

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Welcome to the continuation of Alabama’s Bingo Wars.

Despite a legislative session filled with possible avenues that would have led the State away from its long battle over electronic bingo, we will likely end 2016 and begin 2017 in the same, familiar fashion: Arguing over what’s legal and what’s not in Alabama. “The issue of gaming in Alabama has been the subject of dispute and controversy for years,” Bentley said at his press conference. “In my opinion, it is something that will never die.”

Where We Are Now

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Had the State Legislature approved one of two lottery proposals during its 2016 Session, the dispute over electronic bingo would likely be moot.

Those lottery bills would have likely brought, one way or the other, new slots-like games into Alabama. Known as video lottery terminals, those new games have become popular in states where a lottery has been legalized, primarily because they are easy to approve for state legislatures.

The VLTs are machine replicas of the computers that generate scratch-off lottery cards. Only, instead of rubbing a coin on a piece of paper, you push buttons on a machine that’s dressed up to look like a slot machine.

Gaming manufacturers have devoted a high number of research and development dollars to the new games. There is still enough demand for electronic bingo machines – specifically from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama – that manufacturers haven’t completely abandoned those machines, but a lottery in this State would have sped up their death.

That was why it was important for the State’s current non-Native American casino owners to push for killing Bentley’s lottery-only proposal. Because by legalizing the lottery, it would have opened the door for Bentley to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creeks that would have cemented their monopoly in the State, expanded their reach and allowed the VLT games in their casinos – a change that would have spelled doom for the operations in Macon, Lowndes and Greene counties.

Bentley has repeatedly denied that he or anyone in his office had spoken with Poarch Creek representatives about a potential compact prior to the lottery vote. But four legislators, in separate, independent interviews, said Bentley had personally reached out to them and encouraged them to attend a meeting with the Poarch Creeks and their lobbyists.

At that meeting, the lawmakers said, details of a potential compact were discussed, along with other options for the tribe aiding the State in some manner. Among the proposals discussed were plans to allow three more Poarch Creek casinos in the State – in Ft. Payne, in the Muscle Shoals area and in Birmingham.

A little-known clause in the laws governing Native American gaming would have provided Bentley with the authority to approve the expansion as part of a compact. But without the lottery approval, the specifics of State and Federal laws get significantly trickier.

According to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which sets the rules for gaming on Native American lands, tribes can open casinos on non-tribal lands, so long as the land is purchased from funds derived from tribal interests and the governor of the state signs off. The agreement must still be approved by the Department of the Interior. However, under Alabama law, Bentley cannot grant the Poarch Creeks a monopoly on gaming, nor can he authorize the use of Class III games unless the games are in use elsewhere in the State.

Without those bargaining chips, Bentley would have been limited in what he could ask the Poarch Creeks to give up in tax revenue. Under a Class III gaming compact, most tribal-state agreements of late have landed in the 7-percent range. But without exclusivity and without expansion of what the tribe is already able to offer, that number could be cut in half.

That would mean, assuming the Poarch Creeks are still earning in the neighborhood of $400 million from their three casinos, the State’s tax cut would be less than $15 million.

While that money would still be welcomed in this cash-strapped State, it would do little to fix the overall budget shortfalls.

Gambling Purgatory

All of that has left Alabama in a familiar position: Gambling purgatory.

Because State lawmakers have failed, again, to act on legislation that would settle these basic gaming disputes that even the Governor and other lawmakers admit are valid disagreements, we are left with some casinos operating in a sort of gray area, Poarch Creek casinos operating without a tax-paying compact and precious little revenue flowing to the State coffers from any of it. And the reason for that is even more curious, considering Alabama voters’ changing feelings on gaming. Once upon a time, in the late 1990s, gambling was a touchy issue around the State. But recent polling, conducted by Republican pollsters utilizing questions that were anything but leading, reveal a massive shift.

One poll conducted late in 2015 found that better than 70 percent of voters in the State would support gaming in any form as a means of tax revenue. Even among self-identified conservative voters, the approval ratings of the games surpassed 60 percent. And for good reason: in a State where tax increases are as likely as cutting football expenses, gaming offers a significant amount of revenue. And while it can be argued that gambling revenues rarely increase over the years and that additional problems suck up some of the revenue, the counter to that is that the State’s citizenry is already participating in gambling – at the Poarch Creek facilities, in the lotteries in Georgia, Tennessee and Florida and in the full casinos in Mississippi.

That’s to say nothing of the massive amounts of money spent weekly by people in Alabama on illegal and off-shore gambling on any number of events and games, such as college football and online poker.

Bentley’s gambling committee could go a long way towards providing clear, concise numbers upon which lawmakers and the public could base their future decisions on gaming. And regardless of the outcome, it could do the one thing that has been sorely missing: create ironclad laws.

Because Bentley is accurate when he says there is confusion about the State’s gaming laws. And he’s correct when he notes that people on both sides these arguments have valid positions.

The Alabama Supreme Court has shot down attempts to legalize electronic bingo by county amendment. But Greene and Macon counties, through the same legal process by which we have legalized alcohol sales in some counties, have approved the electronic games.

Neither side, it seems, plans to budge. Which means the State’s lawmakers will have to settle it.

 

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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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