A gambling bill is likely to be voted on by the Alabama Senate as early as Tuesday, when Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery for day 13 of the 2021 Legislative Session. Republican State Sen. Del Marsh’s bill to create a state lottery and authorize as many as nine casinos in the state is expected to be on the floor of the Alabama Senate in the afternoon.
Senate Bill 214 is a proposed amendment to the Alabama Constitution of 1901. It would authorize the governor of Alabama to negotiate an agreement with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to allow expanded games to class I gaming at their two casinos that play electronic bingo in Atmore and Wetumpka in exchange for the state being able to tax the gambling revenues. A proposal to allow the Poarch Creek to build a third casino near Chattanooga is also part of this proposal.
SB214 would also authorize a limited number of non-Indian casinos at Alabama’s dog tracks in Birmingham, Shorter and Greene County. Other operators of games of chance in Lowndes, Greene and Houston Counties are lobbying to be included in the legislation. Any operators of gambling, outside of charity paper card bingo, not licensed by the state of Alabama would be closed down if this becomes law.
Monday, a group of bingo operators in Greene County, sued Marsh claiming that he has solicited bribes from the Poarch Creek in a “pay to play scheme.” Marsh denied the allegations. A spokesman for the Poarch Creek has called the lawsuit “nonsense.”
SB214 would authorize and create a new state agency to license and regulate gambling in the state of Alabama, the Alabama Gaming Commission.
The Alabama Gaming Commission would also run a state lottery and authorize sports betting in Alabama.
The lottery proceeds would be used to fund primarily vocational scholarships as the state of Alabama has a desperate need for persons in skilled trades. The money from the casinos would fund the expansion of broadband service in Alabama, prop up rural healthcare in the state, fund mental health services and be used to improve infrastructure, including roads, bridges and water systems. Marsh promised that both counties with gambling establishments and those without would benefit from the passage of the bill.
Enabling legislation, SB215, has already passed the Senate and is currently in committee in the House.
Last year, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey established a study commission to study gambling in the state of Alabama. The commission found that a lottery, casinos and sports betting would bring in between $500 and $700 million a year in new state revenues.
Opponents, including Alabama Citizen Action Program director Joe Godfrey, say that the gambling proponents are overstating the revenues that this would bring in.
“Most of the revenue comes from within forty miles,” Godfrey said. This will increase gambling addictions and take money out of stores, restaurants, and the local economy hurting sales tax receipts.”
This proposal has divided lawmakers.
Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, said: “I am opposed. I would support a lottery in a minute, but not casinos. I have received many calls from my district opposing casinos.”
Scofield said that he would prefer that the lottery and the casino proposal be divided into two separate bills.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, supports gambling legislation.
“There is already gaming here,” McCutcheon told reporters. “We should get something out of it.”
McCutcheon acknowledged that many House Republicans are opposed to casinos and that this bill has divided the caucus.
Marsh is expected to introduce a substitute version of the bill on the floor of the Senate today.
Gambling is forbidden under the Constitution of 1901. That has been amended in several counties to allow dog and horse racing as well as charity bingo. The Poarch Creek used those exceptions to federally license two facilities under the Indian Gaming Act.
In 1999, a lottery passed the Legislature, only to be soundly rejected by the voters of the state in a special election.
A major gambling proposal passed the Senate in 2010. That bill never came to the floor of the House after the FBI announced that it was doing a corruption investigation. Several senators were indicted for bribery. Three people admitted trying to bribe legislators and served prison sentences. The senators and the other alleged co-conspirators who did not take the plea deal were found not guilty by a jury.
In a 2016 special session, both the House and the Senate passed competing versions of a lottery bill by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, but they could not resolve the differences.
In 2019, Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, brought a simpler lottery bill that easily passed the Senate but ran into a buzz saw of opposition from both conservatives and from legislators who normally support gambling legislation but who did not agree on where the money was going.
SB214 has to get a 21-vote supermajority to get out of the Senate. If it passes the House, it would then go to the voters for their final consideration.
Tuesday will be day 13 of the 2021 Legislative Session.