By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, February 7, 2017, the Alabama Legislature will return to Montgomery for the 2017 Legislative Session and will face dire funding issues for prisons, for the long-troubled Alabama Medicaid Agency, for mental health, for infrastructure, for State parks, and other General Fund programs. Polling shows that Alabamians are dead set against raising taxes. Republicans hold a commanding super majority. Most of those legislators will not face a credible threat next year from the troubled Alabama Democratic Party. The only credible threat is on their right in a GOP Primary, and Republican voters don’t want higher taxes. The temptation is to look to gambling for revenue. That would be a mistake.
Electronic bingo machines are illegal in Alabama. It is no longer a debate. Bingo machines are ILLEGAL in Alabama. The Alabama Supreme Court has made that abundantly clear in ruling after ruling. Lawyers who dispute that at this point are just wasting their client’s money running up billable hours arguing the settled law. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs protects the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and local Sheriffs who dare not close down local gambling halls (and those jobs) protect the few facilities that are still operating outside of State law, and they are subject to being shut down whenever our State authorities decide actually to act. Legalizing those games would require a constitutional amendment and a vote for it by the people. To get the public to vote for gambling is unlikely, but the biggest problem is the Legislature itself and the politics surrounding gambling in Alabama.
No gambling legislation is likely to pass that benefits only a handful of gambling facilities. They simply cannot buy enough legislators to be awarded monopolies. They do own enough state legislators to be able to kill non-monopoly gaming legislation, and there is a significant portion of the legislature that is anti-gambling due to the social costs of gaming that pro-gaming legislators really can’t be divided for a bill that could pass.
A simple gaming amendment that allowed all 67 counties to hold their bingo referendums is dead; because the gambling magnates don’t want competition. Greenetrack would close tomorrow if there were casinos in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Tuscaloosa. The Shorter facility would shutter if there were a Montgomery and Opelika casinos. Gambling exists because there is a minority of Americans who are mathematically illiterate and can be lured into playing a significant portion of their income each month. If you understand the math, you find another hobby.
The gambling bosses want their facilities legalized, and everyone else’s banned; a dead issue if you understand the politics and the different factions involved that I hope we can avoid a repeat of last year’s gambling debacle.
The failed Special Session in August was called not to pass electronic bingo; but rather a State lottery. In theory, the lottery has enough votes in the Alabama Senate and enough pro-lottery votes in the Alabama House of Representatives to pass. Theory is not reality, though. What killed the lottery bill is the bizarre politics surrounding electronic bingo. The bingo magnates wanted a piece of the action. They wanted the lottery to give them legalization. An absolutely bizarre lottery bill that allowed the handful of existing gambling magnates to have electronic “lottery machines” passed the Alabama Senate. House Republicans tore that bill apart and passed a bill decidedly defining lottery as a game played with paper tickets and cutting out the strange lottery machines idea. Rather than just pass a lottery amendment for the voters to consider, the pro-gambling faction in the Senate that is constantly pushing gaming as a solution to everything then joined Republican gambling opponents in blocking a vote on the bill in the Senate.
If the gambling bosses don’t get their little monopolies no gaming bill will be allowed to pass, was the message the entire state needs to get.
How much time and ink did we waste in 2016 (and 2015 for that matter) on gambling legislation that has no hope at all of passing?
The Legislature needs to recognize that this issue has been firmly debated and it is not going to happen with this legislature. Don’t consider any gaming or lottery legislation because we know how this is going to end.