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Opinion | The gambling bill was defeated. What happened and what’s next?

The issue might not be dead just yet.

The ambitious gambling bill that was all but certain to pass the Alabama Senate a week ago fizzled and died a surprisingly quick death Tuesday afternoon, leaving the sponsor embarrassed and the various interested parties both surprised and angry. 

The legislation, which would have allowed ten casino locations, sports wagering and a statewide lottery, fell two votes shy of the 21 necessary to pass a constitutional amendment for gaming. 

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“I’m very disappointed,” said Sen. Del Marsh, the bill’s sponsor. Marsh blamed himself, he said, for the bill’s failure. That admission came a week after he stated boldly that he was confident he held enough votes to pass the bill. He was only holding it, he said, to procure additional support from senators. 

That decision defied one of the oldest rules in politics — when you have the votes, you vote — and left Marsh holding an empty bag following the 19-13 vote.

Officials representing both the traditional casinos and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians told APR that they were not at all expecting a problem with Tuesday’s vote, trusting that Marsh had secured the votes necessary for passage. 

Part of their confusion stemmed from an odd behind-the-scenes negotiation, involving Senate and House leadership, the governor’s office and several interested parties, that stretched well into Tuesday afternoon. At one point Tuesday, several people were told there wouldn’t be a vote until later in the week, at the earliest, because two Democratic senators — certain yes votes — were absent due to illness. 

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When the bill did hit the floor, there seemed to be no set plan for pushing through the legislation that had taken months to craft. Marsh allowed all amendments, attempted to table just one and didn’t discourage senators from voting in favor of problematic amendments, such as two amendments that added casino locations. 

Both of those amendments passed, raising the number of locations from eight to 10, including the three Poarch Creek locations, and possibly turning away a couple of senators who would have been in favor of the bill without the additional locations. 

“When they added the two additional sites, that was the end,” a lobbyist who has worked closely on the bill told APR. “We knew going in that one of the big sticking points was the number of locations. It was stupid.”

Stupid or not, Tuesday’s antics killed what was a very popular bill among voters. Despite several Republican detractors saying constituents were concerned with the casino portion of the bill, polling continued to show broad support for all gambling expansion and significant support for allowing voters to determine the issue. 

The issue might not be dead just yet. Sources close to the governor’s office said late Tuesday that Gov. Kay Ivey and top advisors were extremely displeased with Tuesday’s outcome and were considering calling a special session this summer to address gambling. Ivey had worked for weeks with lawmakers in both houses on the bill and believed that there were enough votes to move it forward. 

Ivey released a statement prior to the vote encouraging lawmakers to move the legislation forward. After it failed, she released another saying “there is more work to be done. This issue is too important to not get it right.” 

In addition to that threat, there is another gambling bill — this one sponsored by Sens. Jim McClendon, Garlan Gudger and Marsh — that would legalize a statewide lottery, complete with online options, and allow for video lottery terminals at five locations. The five locations are not listed in the bill, Senate Bill 320. 

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It would be a significant down-step from Marsh’s mega-gaming bill, but it would provide voters an opportunity to approve a lottery and expand gambling somewhat within the state. 

That bill would also split proceeds 50-50 between the Education Trust Fund and General Fund budgets. And it would create a new gaming commission.

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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