By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians could soon be operating casinos in Georgia; Alabama gaming law and federal Indian gaming laws are complicated and filled with gray areas; and gambling, in general, is just awful.
That pretty much summed up Meeting 2 of the Alabama Advisory Council on Gaming – the governor’s committee that was formed to explore the complicated issues surrounding gambling in the state and then make recommendations to lawmakers.
The most noteworthy portion of the second meeting, held Thursday at the State House, was a presentation and question-and-answer session with Poarch Creek Vice President Robbie McGhee.
During his presentation McGhee told the committee that the tribe was invited by the Georgia Hope Scholarship committee to present ideas for operating four casinos in that state. Legislation that would authorize those locations hasn’t been approved, and McGhee said after the meeting on Thursday that any decisions in that state are still months away.
“It’s early, but Georgia is moving forward,” he said. “They want to place the casinos at four, strategic locations – the same idea we have here. You can’t just put casinos up everywhere. They need to make sense.”
McGhee expressed a desire to work with state officials on finally coming to some sort of resolution on gaming in Alabama and cementing the decision in the constitution. In order to do so, McGhee said the tribe would be willing to explore options for a compact with Alabama and also would be willing to forego complete exclusivity and allow casinos in Macon (VictoryLand) and Greene (GreeneTrack) counties.
But the pathway to such deals is filled with legal loopholes and murky current law, and much of it must pass through a somewhat unpredictable federal approval process.
Carrie McCollum, an attorney with the Alabama Credit Union administration, walked the committee through several aspects of the law and its gray areas.
One of the biggest areas of concern for all involved is exactly where the power lies to enter into a compact – can the governor do it on his own or is legislation required from the State House?
“Under federal law, the governor has the authority,” McCollum said. “But then the question becomes what authority he has to alter state law without approval from the legislature.”
McCollum noted that a similar situation in Florida resulted in that state’s supreme court overturning the governor’s compact with a tribe.
McGhee said the Poarch Creeks would also prefer that legislation be established for any compact, if for no other reason than to “prevent us from having to go through this every year.”
Alabama’s gaming debate has stretched on because its lawmakers have refused to take action and put guidelines in place, and those failures have cost the state billions of dollars in lost revenue over the past several years. McGhee pointed out that Florida has hauled in over $1 billion in the last five years from its Native American facilities.
Alabama, on the other hand, has been content to argue the wording of county bingo amendments, use raids to shut down non-Indian casinos and weirdly ignore that the Poarch Creeks are operating three casinos that are reportedly hauling in nearly a half-billion dollars in profits annually. During Thursday’s meeting, committee member Sen. Craig Ford had to remind a speaker arguing against Alabama allowing gambling in the state that “we already have gambling in Alabama.”
That presenter was Joe Godfrey, the executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, who, along with his guest, Les Bernal from the Stop Predatory Gambling group, argued against any and all gambling.
At one point in his 10-point presentation, Bernal explained that Indian gambling had made the Native Americans poorer and called the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act a piece of failed legislation. This came just moments after McGhee told of his ancestors living unnoticed in the Alabama woods for years and today’s members enjoying free health care, free social programs and a far better quality of life than that of most in Alabama.
At the end of Thursday’s meeting, chairman Clinton Carter had to remind people that the committee wasn’t meeting in order to find a way to legalize gambling, but that it was instead formed in order to find the best way forward – whatever that might be.
The Council will meet again on Dec. 1.