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Sources: More ‘tribe-friendly’ gambling bill on the way

Josh Moon

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On Wednesday, numerous lawmakers told APR that they had been informed by lobbyists working for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that Senate President Del Marsh was expected to sponsor a “more tribe-friendly” gambling bill after meeting with PCI leaders.

That bill would counter one offered on Tuesday by Sen. Jim McClendon. Oddly, Marsh is listed as a co-sponsor on the McClendon bill.

According to those familiar with the new bill, it would offer Alabama voters only the option for voting on a lottery — an option that would ensure the Poarch Creeks maintain a gaming monopoly in Alabama and continue to rake in billions of dollars annually while paying no taxes.

The key differences between that bill and the one McClendon offered on Tuesday, the sources said, is that the new bill removes opportunities for the state to earn revenue at a later date from sports wagering and it removes the portion that allows the state’s four greyhound tracks to operate video lottery terminals (VLTs), which are the electronic equivalents of lottery scratch-offs.

But the biggest difference is money.

While the state will receive revenue from the lottery, it will miss out on potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from the VLTs, which would be taxed at around 25 percent. At that rate, judging by the revenue generated by PCI’s three casinos that operate electronic bingo machines (which are somewhat similar to VLTs), Alabama could make more than $150 million annually in tax revenue.

Of course, the stakes are also high for the Poarch Creeks, which see the possibility of competition for their tax-free gaming monopoly. The tribe’s annual profits are reportedly in the $1 billion range and it is sitting on a pile of cash.

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Over the last several years, PCI has offered to bail the state out of a $250 million budget hole in exchange for gaming exclusivity. It has also purchased a Pennsylvania casino for $1.3 billion and bought other major casino properties in the Caribbean islands, Louisiana and Nevada. That is in addition to spending hundreds of millions to upgrade their casinos in Montgomery and Wetumpka.

The spoils of operating gaming facilities without the burden of supporting the local and state economies.

It’s no surprise that the tribe is fighting hard against McClendon’s proposal. On Wednesday, lawmakers entered their offices at the State House to find letters from PCI CEO Stephanie Bryan had been slid under their doors.

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The letters reiterated to the lawmakers that the tribe would be supportive only of a “clean lottery bill.” It also stated that passage of a lottery wouldn’t necessarily mean that the Poarch Creeks could expand the games they offer at their casinos.

Bryan also told lawmakers that PCI is considering drafting legislation for a compact with the state of Alabama.

But the situation also highlights the tough spot PCI is in. The tribe already offers gambling that is roughly equal to the VLTs that would be approved in McClendon’s bill. So, there’s no argument to be made against an expansion of gambling.

That gives lawmakers a pretty clearcut choice: The same gambling and nine figures worth of tax revenue every year or the same gambling and we watch our tax revenue be spent on casinos in other states and countries.

For lawmakers already dealing with constituents angry over the gas tax vote, that’s a pretty easy choice.

 

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House

McCutcheon is in “wait and see mode” on medical marijuana bill

Brandon Moseley

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Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) last Thursday was asked by reporters where he stood on pending medical marijuana legislation.

“I am in a wait and see mode,” McCutcheon told reporters. “The sponsor of the bill has done a lot of work.”

On Tuesday, State Senator Tim Melson (R-Florence) introduced a bill to legalize tightly controlled medical cannabis. The Medical cannabis bill introduced on Tuesday is Senate Bill 165.

“We have a letter from the Attorney General,” recommending that the legislature reject the bill.

Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) is arguing that while marijuana remains a federally controlled substance the legislature should not pass a state law that would be noncompliant with federal law. Marshall believes that if medical marijuana has any medical benefit then the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be the appropriate authority to approve such legislation and the state should wait for FDA to act.

33 states already have legalized medical marijuana.

“It brings up a legal question when you get a legal opinion from the attorney general office,” McCutcheon explained. “It answers some of my questions and also on the pro and the con there were some questions raised in the legal community.”

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McCutcheon said, “That is why we are in the mode that we are in.”

Melson introduced a medical marijuana bill last year during the 2019 regular session. That bill passed the Senate; but had difficulty getting out of committee in the Alabama House of Representatives. Instead of passing medical marijuana legislation the legislature passed a bill extending Leni’s Law and Carly’s law and establishing the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission tasked with making a recommendation to the legislature.

The Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission was chaired by Sen. Melson and met monthly from August to November. In December, the commission voted in favor of a draft proposal recommending that the state allow licensed medical providers to prescribe marijuana based medications to patients with a demonstrated need. The state would create the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to regulate medical cannabis in the state. Farmers, processors, transporters, and dispensaries would have to get a license from the Commission and product would be strictly regulated.

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Despite the Commission’s recommendation, SB165 remains highly controversial in the legislature and there is expected to be considerable opposition to the bill. SB165 is 82 pages long.

SB165 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) told the Alabama Political Reporter that there will be a public hearing on SB165 on Wednesday, at 8:30 a.m. in the Alabama Statehouse room 825. Opponents and proponents will both be given the opportunity to voice their opinions.

Thursday was the fourth day of the 2020 legislative session.

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Legislature

Ophthalmologists concerned over questionable Senate Health Committee vote

Eddie Burkhalter

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A controversial call in a state Senate Health Committee vote has some who are opposed to a bill that would expand the scope of practice for optometrists seeing red. 

APR obtained a video of a portion of the Feb. 5 Senate Health Committee meeting, during which state Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, who sponsored Senate Bill 66, made a motion to give a favorable report for Senate Bill 66. 

Committee chairman Sen. Jim McClendon, R- Springville, called for a second to Whatley’s motion, to which no one could be heard on the video to have spoken up but McClendon said “I have a second” and asked that “all in favor say aye” without calling for “nays” and then declared the motion approved and closing the meeting. 

In a video several senators can be heard expressing concern over McClendon’s move, and asking that their “no” votes be counted. Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, can be heard off camera saying “Record my no vote please.” 

Sen. Coleman-Madison’s is the only “nay” vote noted on the Health Committee Vote Roll Call Sheet, which McClendon signed as having passed in a 5/4 vote. 

If it becomes law, the bill would allow optometrists to expand their scope of practice to include numerous procedures that state law now only allows done by ophthalmologists, who are graduates of medical schools and who undergo lengthier training including residencies. A similar bill failed approval by the legislature last year.

APR’s Brandon Moseley reported Friday on the differences of opinion between the optometrists and the ophthalmologists about the bill. 

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Asked why he didn’t call for “nays” before closing the vote, McClendon, a retired optometrist and a co-sponsor of the bill, told APR by phone on Friday that “that’s the chairman’s prerogative.” 

McClendon said that the only written information about the transactions within a committee is the vote, and that the committee clerk, not him, notated on the vote total that Sen. Coleman-Madison was a “nay.”  

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told APR that every committee chairperson has the authority under Senate rules to conduct a vote as McClendon did. 

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“Typically, you get a one-time pass on that,” Ward said. “In other words, you can pull that one time during the session. You can’t do it repeatedly…It’s kind of an unspoken rule.” 

“It’s not that the chairman gets a pass,” McClendon said when told of Ward’s statement. “It’s that that chairman is in charge of the meeting.” 

Asked if it was fair to move the bill through the committee without taking a full vote on it, McClendon said “it’s the procedure. Life is not fair. Let’s face it.” 

“As someone who’s not familiar with the political process and how these things are done, it was surprising to me how the meeting transpired,” Dr. Brendan Wyatt, an ophthalmologist who spoke out against SB66 at the Feb. 5 meeting, told APR by phone Friday. 

Wyatt said before the meeting those who opposed the bill had commitments from eight senators who said they’d vote against moving it out of committee.  

“Having the mindset that we’re in a representative government I was surprised and taken back on how that whole thing took place,” Wyatt said of the vote. 

Senate Bill 66 now rests with the Senate Rules Committee, which will determine whether the bill will move on to the special calendar for a full Senate vote. 

APR’s attempts to reach Senate Rules Committee chairman Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, and several other Health Committee members last week were unsuccessful. 

Asked if he believes the bill has a chance of passing this year, McClendon said “I’d say it’s better than last year.” 

“It’s out of the committee,” McClendon said.

 

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House

House passes bill to simplify annexations

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday the Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation making it simpler to annex property in overlapping police jurisdictions if both of the municipalities agree and all of the landowners agree with the annexation.

House Bill 12 is sponsored by State Representative Terri Collins, R-Decatur. The bill however was carried on the floor of the House on Thursday by Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, who was away with her family due to the sudden death of her husband, Tom Collins, from a sudden heart attack on Sunday, February 9.

Rowe said that under current law, if both of the municipalities in overlapping police jurisdictions agree, and all of the property owners are also in agreement then half of the land could be annexed this year. Half of the remaining half could enter the city limits next year, then half of the remaining one quarter could be annexed the year after that. The process could take years.

HB12 simplifies it so that all of the land in overlapping police jurisdiction, where the landowners are in agreement, could come in to the city limits of their choice as long as both of the cities or town are in agreement.

Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, said that he was voting against the bill and wanted it amended to exempt Talladega County out of it. He said that many country people were fearful of being annexed into a city and having local governments telling them that they can not build a chicken house or expand their barn. Hurst said that there was a Mayor in his county that was seeking more power and more annexations. He did not name that mayor.

Rowe assured Hurst that the property owners could not be annexed against their will under the terms of this legislation.

HB12 was passed by the Alabama House of Representatives on a vote of 83 to 4.

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The legislation now goes to the Alabama Senate for their consideration.

The Alabama House of Representatives will meet again on Tuesday, February 18. It will be the fifth day of the 2020 Legislative Session. Under the Alabama Constitution of 1901, the regular legislative session is limited to no more than thirty days.

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Legislature

Sen. Greg Reed announces ADECA grants for local law enforcement

Staff

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Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) announced today the following grants for local Law Enforcement Agencies from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). 

  • $23,682.00 to the City of Cordova for the Cordova Police Department will use to purchase properly fitted body armor, less- lethal tasers, computers and surveillance equipment. 
  • $20,786.32 to the Town of Oakman to purchase new equipment for the Oakman Police Department. 
  • $23,075.31 to the Town of Arley for the Arley Police Department to update their patrol cars and department.

Governor Kay Ivey announced the awarding of the grants this week. 

“Too often, we are reminded of the dangers our law enforcement officers face as they patrol our streets and keep our communities safe. I am pleased to announce that we have made additional funding available to help these police departments purchase necessary, new equipment,” Governor Ivey said. “We must do everything we can to ensure our officers have the best resources available just as they ensure our families and communities are safe.”

Rep. Tim Wadsworth thanked Governor Ivey and emphasized the importance of funding the local police departments. 

“I want to personally thank Governor Ivey for approving the ADECA police protection grants that were awarded to the towns of Cordova, Oakman, and Arley.  The protection of our citizens is of paramount importance to us and our children and without adequate funding our police departments cannot operate at a 100% efficiency. Further, I would like to thank Mayor Gilbert, Mayor Franks and Mayor Tyree for their leadership in working with the police chiefs to apply for these grants.  Senator Reed and I have worked hard to let police departments know when grants are available and to assist in any way we can in the process. Again, thanks to all that are involved.”

Senator Reed praised the ADECA for providing support to these Law Enforcement agencies for equipment that will ultimately be used to keep communities and law enforcement officers safer.

“I want to thank Governor Ivey and ADECA for working with us so that we can provide our police men and women with the funds they need to purchase new equipment and improve the equipment they already use. Our law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. We owe it to them to do all we can to make sure they have what they need to make their jobs easier and safer,” Reed said.

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Greg Reed represents District 5 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Walker, Fayette, Winston, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. He serves as the Senate Majority Leader.

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