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Senate approves comprehensive gaming bill, but not without some weirdness

The once-dead gaming bill was brought back to life Tuesday, and it passed the same Senate where it had previously failed.

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Alabama voters moved one step closer Tuesday to finally being allowed to vote on legalizing a statewide lottery, casino gaming and sports wagering. But because it’s gambling legislation in Alabama, nothing was easy and everything was weird. 

The Alabama Senate approved a comprehensive gaming bill that would see the state grant licenses for facilities at nine locations around Alabama, approve a statewide lottery and legalize sports wagering at the nine facilities and online. It also authorizes Gov. Kay Ivey to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The bill passed 23-9. 

But not before it took one of the weirdest pathways ever. 

The bill that passed — SB319, sponsored by Sen. Jim McClendon — was essentially the same bill that was first brought by Sen. Del Marsh earlier in the session. That bill would have allowed casinos at seven sites — VictoryLand in Macon County, GreeneTrack in Greene County, The Birmingham Race Course in Birmingham, The Mobile Greyhound Park in Mobile, Country Crossing in Dothan, Center Star in Lowndes County and a new location in either Jackson or Dekalb County. 

To the surprise of many, Marsh’s original bill fell two votes shy of the 21 votes required to meet the three-fifths threshold for a constitutional amendment. 

Immediately, behind the scenes, the interested parties, supporters of the bill and the governor’s office began a push to get the bill back on the floor. Somehow. Someway. 

Last Thursday, McClendon’s SB319 hit the floor as a standalone lottery bill. It was heavily debated, and one of the enabling pieces of legislation that accompanied the bill was even passed. Then, it was un-passed, so to speak, as the body voted to recall the bill for more consideration. 

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That resulted in McClendon carrying over his bill — basically hitting the pause button and allowing negotiations behind the scenes to continue in hopes of reaching a compromise. When SB319 returned on Tuesday, there was a substitute bill offered in its place — not an uncommon occurrence. 

The substitute bill was essentially Marsh’s original, comprehensive gaming bill. 

“This was the strangest process I’ve ever been a part of,” McClendon said following the bill’s passage. Both he and Marsh thanked the other senators for their input and said the process — while odd — was far more comprehensive and inclusive than almost any other. 

That process often included Gov. Kay Ivey, representatives from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and dog track owners, along with the leadership in both the House and Senate, and various other lawmakers. Those groups ironed out the rough spots in the bill and produced a piece of legislation that had widespread support in both bodies. 

And while it was very similar to the Marsh bill in terms of the overall results — nine casino locations, a lottery, sports betting, a PCI compact, etc. — it included more subtle changes that satisfied wary lawmakers. One of those changes allows for the casino licenses to be bid on, which in theory could drive up the prices. However, limitations on who can bid and hold licenses will make it extremely unlikely that an outside entity will be able to outbid the locals. 

Another change would prevent license holders from owning more than two locations. That was important to squash persistent rumors that PCI was planning to immediately buy out the other casino owners and essentially obtain a gaming monopoly. 

Following the vote, officials from both the dog tracks and PCI said they were reviewing the amendments that were placed on the bill — and on the enabling legislation — prior to passage and didn’t yet want to comment. However, both parties seemed to believe Tuesday’s approval was a significant step in the right direction. 

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The numerous amendments that were offered and mostly adopted dealt primarily with the way in which revenue received by the state would be distributed and with the rules governing the newly created gaming commission. 

However, an amendment that’s certain to draw scrutiny was one offered by Sen. Dan Roberts, which raised the tax rates paid by casinos from 20 percent to 27 percent on slots and electronic games, and then 35 percent on all remaining table games. That amendment was attached to a bill creating the gaming commission and was approved, but the same amendment attached to the bill approving the casinos was shot down. What that means wasn’t clear late Tuesday. 

The gaming bill now moves to the House, where, historically, gambling legislation has gone to die. But those pushing this bill believe the numbers are there this time around, especially with the governor’s office on board and with PCI and the dog track owners in agreement.

Written By

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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