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Analysis | The new pari-mutuel machines at Birmingham Race Course are legal, and there’s really no question about it

Josh Moon

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Because Bill Pryor said so. 

Since news broke on Tuesday that the Birmingham Race Course had installed 300-plus pari-mutuel gaming machines, there have been a lot of questions from people all around the state. Primarily, the question raised, with genuine curiosity, is this: Why are those games legal?

The answer: Because Bill Pryor and two other Alabama attorneys general, including the current one, have said so. 

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated — and a lot more sensible — than that. But at the end of the day, if you want to make sure you’re operating a legal business whenever a complicated matter of law raises the question, you turn to the Alabama AG’s office for guidance. 

The owners of both the Mobile Greyhound Park and the Birmingham Race Course have done so. 

Four times. 

But it was Pryor, during his time as Alabama’s AG in the early 2000s, who set the precedent. All subsequent letters merely asked the AG’s office to reaffirm that the historical pari-mutuel games are legal. 

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And truthfully, why wouldn’t they be legal? 

The Alabama law that makes pari-mutuel wagering at greyhound tracks (and later, horse racing at the Birmingham Race Course) allowed for bettors to gamble on races at the track and also for the tracks “to receive broadcasts of races located outside of” the specific counties where the tracks were located and allowed “all forms of pari-mutuel wagering” on those broadcast races. 

The machines in question — the new historical pari-mutuel machines installed at the Birmingham Race Course — essentially broadcast races to bettors at the track. It’s just that these races have already been run. 

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To play one of these machines, a player inserts money and receives information about a race — length, track conditions, weather, horse information. The player can pull up all the standard info that’s typically contained within a racing sheet, which gamblers use at tracks to make informed bets on each race. 

That part is key. 

Because also under Alabama law, the thing that makes pari-mutuel wagering legal is that Alabama’s Legislature has determined that it’s not simply a lottery, or a game of strictly chance. There is a level of skill required, and if a bettor has that skill, he or she won’t necessarily be taking as much of a risk. 

After the player selects which horses to bet on, the pari-mutuel machine plays out the race in digital form. After the win or loss, the player has the option to view the full race upon which the game was based, or to view the last four seconds of the race. 

The opinion from Pryor’s office from March 2001, written by Carol Jean Smith, the chief of the opinions division, essentially says that if the pari-mutuel machines simply broadcasts old races and requires all the same skill, they’re good.

“If a computerized machine that replays actual historical races requires a player to exercise a significant degree of skill to make a pari-mutuel wager on the outcome of the race, use of such machine is permissible in Mobile County …,” the opinion reads. 

Future opinions written by AGs Troy King and Marshall essentially echo that original opinion from Pryor and say the laws haven’t changed. 

So, there’s no reason these machines aren’t legal. All the same things are true. All the laws still stand. All the opinions are still valid. 

Of course, this is Alabama, and in Alabama the definitions of laws can change depending upon the amount and direction of money flowing to those who do the defining. Elected officials can, and have, made remarkable 180s when it was politically expedient or personally profitable to do so. 

It’s certainly conceivable that such a change could occur in this case. 

But if they do so, they won’t have a legal leg to stand on.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Josh Moon

Opinion | Humane Alabama prisons would be a real surprise

Just some Christlike compassion and decent management. Getting either in Alabama’s prisons would be a huge surprise.

Josh Moon

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Nearly every day, there is a notification on my phone announcing that APR reporter Eddie Burkhalter has submitted yet another story on some new horror that has occurred within Alabama’s God-awful prison system. 

A beating. A death. A suicide. Guards arrested. Guards accused of essentially murder. The Alabama Department of Corrections offering a lame-ass excuse for this death or that “suicide” or this drug overdose or that outright murder. 

Every single day. 

How he deals with it — listening to the pain and anguish of the prisoners and their family members — is simply unimaginable to me. 

But because of his stories, and the work done by the ACLU’s Beth Shelburne, I know — and the readers of APR know — all too well of the violence and all around horrors that exist daily within Alabama’s prison system. 

So, it was quite absurd to hear a few days ago that both the Alabama Department of Corrections and Attorney General Steve Marshall were “surprised” by a Department of Justice report that found the state’s prisons to be an absolute horror show, where beatings, suicides, murders and drug use are rampant. 

The only people in those positions who would be “surprised” by such a report are idiots and liars. Marshall and Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn can decide where they fall. 

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The report from the Donald Trump DOJ, which is led by Bill Barr, was produced following a near-four year investigation into the prison system in the state, and it came on the heels of other federal reports that found similar issues. 

The state is currently tied up in federal litigation over ADOC’s lack of health care and mental health care for prisoners. Testimony in that trial, highlighted by media, has brought damning details of the state’s prisons and the cruel and unusual punishment doled out within their walls. 

At this point, the only people who don’t know that Alabama’s prisons are dark holes where violence, death and disease run rampant are those who don’t want to know. 

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You would think that such despicable stories of death and misery, in a state where Christian values reign and we profess a deep and unbreakable respect for the sanctity of life, would prompt public outrage. You would think our prisons would be governed by the Christian ideals of forgiveness and salvation. 

You would be wrong. 

Now, we could get into the many reasons — or, really, the one reason — why that is, but let’s not get bogged down in race or in why Christian repentance seems far less available the darker your skin. 

Just know the prisons are awful and that their awfulness has never been a secret to anyone with a working brain and the ability to read. 

That didn’t stop Marshall from grandstanding, however. 

In a ridiculous press release, he declared that the state would not “be bullied” by the federal government into entering into a consent decree. 

(I’d like to take a moment here to give proper respect to the federal bullying of Alabama over the years. Without it, we’d still have slavery, Jim Crow and Roy Moore-approved same-sex marriage laws.)

Marshall also, for some weird reason, tied the release of the report to the 2020 election, saying the state won’t be pressured into an agreement “conspicuously, 53 days before a presidential election.”

Yes, how dare the feds force us to treat humans like humans just 53 days before … other humans … go vote? 

Hard to believe these guys aren’t getting the job done, isn’t it?

And they’re not. It doesn’t matter what happens — bad press, lawsuits, DOJ reports, threats from federal agencies — Alabama officials are NOT going to clean up our prisons. They’re not going to reduce overcrowding or provide proper care or hire and properly train enough corrections officers. 

Not unless Alabama citizens hold them accountable. 

And you should. Because the environment of any prison or detention center is set by the people who run it, not the inmates within it. 

Instead of cesspools of violence and death, the prisons could be models of reform and humanity — where men and women are rehabilitated and provided life skills that reduce recidivism rates. 

Isn’t it weird how such goals are not part of a $2 billion plan to build new prisons? 

Over the weekend, a group of activists rallied in front of the governor’s mansion in Montgomery to protest that new prison plan. The Alabamians Who Care group wants massive reforms and a plan for better prisons that treat people more humanely. 

That’s not impossible. Other countries and other states have done it. And it didn’t cost them $2 billion and federal intervention. 

Just some Christlike compassion and decent management. 

Getting either in Alabama’s prisons would be a huge surprise.

 

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Opinion | Parents are being asked to gamble their family’s safety over reopening schools. Don’t.

The only reason we’re in this boat is because weak politicians, bowing to the ignorance of selfish people over the expertise and knowledge of doctors and scientists, refused to take hard, necessary steps for the proper lengths of time.

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Alabama parents, do what you think is best. Do not apologize for it. Over the last several weeks, there has been an ongoing pressure campaign around the country, and particularly in Alabama, to get kids back into school buildings. The president has pushed it. Republicans in Congress have pushed it. Even local politicians are pushing it. 

On Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told parents that missing school would potentially put Alabama school kids further behind. She encouraged them to get their kids back in school as soon as possible, because “it’s really important.” 

Um, yeah. Do you think there are parents out there who don’t know that? 

Furthermore, do people think there are parents who are gleeful about keeping their kids home from school? Who are keeping them out simply to be arbitrarily defiant? Who are being flippant about this decision in any way? 

If you do, allow me to set you straight: We’re not. 

Keeping children out of school, or even out of daycare in my case, is an incredibly hard decision and an even harder life adjustment. Because it disrupts EVERYTHING. 

My wife and I are extremely fortunate to work for companies that are understanding and willing to work around our childcare situations. And even so, it has been a major adjustment. 

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We try to alternate and coordinate the best we can. We’ve hired people to help at times. And we’ve made the call to grandparents for assistance. 

And still, there are days when we cannot get things done, when we’re both frazzled and frustrated. 

We’re not doing any of that because it’s fun. Or because we’re giving Trump the middle finger. 

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We’re doing it because there is no good, safe — or even just saf-ER — option. 

And I’m not necessarily talking about the danger for only our daughter, because she’s healthy and strong and would likely be just fine even if she happened to contract COVID-19.

But when could I safely let our child see her grandparents again? Her aunts and uncles and extended family members? What about the family members and friends who have underlying conditions? 

And then there are larger questions. Like, are we helping to extend a pandemic by participating in what will inevitably lead to more virus spread? 

Because that’s going to happen. There’s no way around it. If you put millions of children and adults in enclosed buildings all over the country, you’re going to spread this virus. Just like those schools spread the flu, colds and everything else. 

Kids are going to take that virus home, just like they take home all those Fall colds and flu. And they’re going to infect others. 

And the spread will come at the height of flu season, and at a time when ICU beds are already full. 

That seems like a recipe for death and disaster. 

And it shouldn’t be on parents. This decision shouldn’t be laid at our feet. In fact, there shouldn’t even be a decision for us to make. 

The only reason we’re in this boat is because weak politicians, bowing to the ignorance of selfish people over the expertise and knowledge of doctors and scientists, refused to take hard, necessary steps for the proper lengths of time, and then compounded the problems by refusing to offer the necessary financial support to overcome those mistakes. 

We could have implemented mask orders earlier, kept bars and nightclubs closed, restricted large gatherings more stringently and been serious about fines for dangerous behaviors — all the things that have worked so well in other countries. 

At the same time, instead of forking over billions to companies that don’t need the money, we could have instead paid for a system that protected working parents’ jobs and their salaries. 

But we didn’t. It was more important to “reopen” the economy for the big Memorial Day boom and to make sure the corporate pals got fatter. 

And so now, here they are, asking parents to place the safety and health of their children, and, really, their entire families, on the line because they need to pretend that there’s some normalcy out there. 

Don’t listen to them. 

Get good, reliable facts from good, reliable sources. Do your research. Talk to your kids’ teachers and principals and superintendent. Weigh the options and the risks for yourself. And then you do what’s right for your family. 

And don’t apologize for it.

 

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Opinion | Why should Will Dismukes resign?

Will Dismukes and his love for all things confederacy aren’t an outlier in the Alabama Republican Party. The party has sought those voters. It has encouraged those views. It has backed legislation supporting those insane beliefs.

Josh Moon

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Rep. Will Dismukes is facing criticism for attending and speaking at a birthday celebration for the first Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. (WSFA)

There is no reason for state Rep. Will Dismukes to resign. Not as far as the Alabama Republican Party is concerned. 

Oh, sure, a few members of ALGOP have made splashy headlines over the last two days, as they’ve called for Dismukes to resign or generally berated the young Republican for his decision to post about attending the birthday party for the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. 

But really, what right do Alabama Republicans have to call for Dismukes to resign? 

This is the sort of behavior, the sort of people — the hate and ignorance and callousness and racism — that ALGOP has been embracing for years. The party has pandered to it, encouraged it, raised money off of it and never — not even a little bit — felt bad about it until the day it might cost them votes. 

I mean, stop it with the “this is not my party” nonsense. 

What are you talking about this isn’t your party? Have you been living under a rock? 

Let us review, please. 

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You are the party that a few years ago passed the most racist immigration law in America, correct? 

You are the party that repeatedly pushed for and eventually passed a law to protect confederate monuments, correct? (It’s also worth noting that the original version of this law would have allowed for removal of Civil Rights Movement monuments.)

You are the party that had a member — a member who is still serving — pass around an email during a legislative session about training monkeys, a thinly-veiled, racist reference to black Democrats, right? 

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You are the party that pushed for a new voter ID law that solved zero issues with fraud and placed another roadblock between Black voters and the polls, right? 

You are the party that broke the law to pass the AAA act, which rerouted public schools’ dollars from Alabama’s poorest and Blackest schools to private schools, helping to aid white flight, right? 

You are the party that earlier this year passed a resolution calling for forcing out Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar because you believed Facebook memes, right? 

You are the party that for years has resisted criminal justice reform, to the detriment of thousands of Black Alabamians and their families, right? 

You are the party that routinely — with a wink and a nod — paints a picture of Black families on public assistance as moochers and deadbeats, slicing the benefits to the bone and requiring worthless drug tests, right? 

You are the party that has remained silent as Black Alabamians rallied for better representation, more equal justice and the removal of Civil War participation trophies, correct? 

You are the party that has repeatedly coddled the believers of the “lost cause” theories of the Civil War, told them their opinions were just as valid and went to bat for them on legislation, correct? 

You are the party that continues to protect the funding of the Confederate Memorial Park — Alabama’s most well funded park, right? 

This is who the ALGOP is. Stop pretending otherwise because Dismukes didn’t know better than to do the quiet parts in public view. 

Had this happened prior to the current reckoning taking place in America, not a peep would have been said. How do I know this? Because it’s not like Dismukes has been hiding his racism this whole time and then slipped up. 

The guy is active on social media, routinely referring to the Civil War as the “war of northern aggression.” He has attacked Black Lives Matter, said nasty things about those wanting to remove confederate statues and went on a media campaign to save the funding for Confederate Memorial Park. 

Not a single elected Alabama Republican ever uttered a word. 

Just like no one in the ALGOP ever speaks up when Mo Brooks goes on one of his weekly racist rants. Or the Trump administration does something blatantly racist. Or one of the state party members posts a racist meme on social media.

Never a peep.

These things matter. And they don’t just matter in the absolute worst cases, when voters might turn away and public sentiment is decidedly against you. 

They matter every single day to minorities in this state and around the country. Not for some petty political reason, but because these issues are a matter of fairness and decency for other human beings. 

So, sorry, but as it stands, Will Dismukes and his love for all things confederacy aren’t an outlier in the Alabama Republican Party. The party has sought those voters. It has encouraged those views. It has backed legislation supporting those insane beliefs.

You don’t get to run away from years of that deplorable behavior with a few press releases and tweets.

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Opinion | Delaying high school football would be the right thing. We’d rather die

Josh Moon

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There’s a secret about football that no one around here says out loud very much. It doesn’t matter. Like, not even a little bit. Oh, sure, it makes money for people and we enjoy watching it and yada, yada, yada. But in the grand scheme of life and health and making a difference in the world, it matters about as much as a gravy fountain. 

It certainly matters less than your life. Or your loved ones’ lives. 

And yet, that seems to be the trade-off we’re willing to make in this state. On Thursday, the Alabama High School Athletic Association, with the backing of state leaders, quite a few superintendents and most football coaches, will announce that high school football season in Alabama will go forward without delay. 

Even as some 17 school districts, including the state’s largest districts, in the midst of this global COVID-19 pandemic, opt to forego in-person classes and instead will hold virtual classes for the first nine weeks, at least. 

So, it seems, as thousands of Alabama school children stay home because spending hours in the same building with their classmates is too dangerous, in terms of the spread of the virus, hundreds of those same kids will also be attending football practices and games, at which they will participate in, essentially, three hours of sweaty hugging and sharing drink bottles. 

If this sounds like the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, well, hold on, because I haven’t yet told you about the “new guidelines” that will be implemented to make football safer. 

According to numerous reports from media outlets around the state, certain safety measures will be introduced, including no handshakes before or after the game, only one player from each team for the coin toss and extending the sideline areas to allow for social distancing. 

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Now, just stop here for a moment and consider those things. 

Consider, if you will, two linemen. They have spent the entire game, about half of the plays, banging against one another, pushing and pulling and spitting and clawing and dragging and piled on top of each other.

But don’t worry, they’re not shaking hands afterward. So, virus avoided. 

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Look, I get it. We all want life to be as normal as possible, especially for kids. And part of that normalcy are things like high school football. 

But at the same time, every person who has fought for an on-time return of high school football will claim that their motivation is, in some way, related to the “important life lessons” learned in team sports. And maybe that’s true to an extent. 

But just as important in the education of children is teaching them responsibility, particularly when that responsibility involves giving up something or doing something you don’t want to do for the greater good. 

I mean, do you think those kids wanted to storm that beach at Normandy?  

Don’t roll your eyes. That’s a fair comparison at this point, in every aspect but the cost of sacrifice. We’ll have 150,000 dead Americans by this time next week from a virus that’s been around less than half a year. That’s more than the Iraq war (both versions), the war in Afghanistan, the Vietnam conflict and WWI — combined. 

And football is going to add to that. 

Please, spare me the justifications and false data. I know the kids are unlikely to die from contracting coronavirus. But their parents and grandparents and elderly relatives and friends are more likely. 

Also, I’d like to remind you that there are a lot of awful steps between healthy and dead. Some of those steps include a hospital bed and a ventilator. And we’re running low, again, on both. 

When you put together thousands of kids, thousands of parents and fans and hundreds of coaches and officials, you’re going to further the spread of this virus. This is not a point that can be argued. 

That spread will lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, more deaths. 

Preventing this additional sickness and death involves us not playing a game in which one group of kids tries to get an oblong ball into a square area at the end of a long field.    

It’s a tough choice, obviously.

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