The House State Government Committee on Wednesday was scheduled to take up the gambling bill. Instead, state Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, who chairs the committee, announced that a substitute bill is in the process of being written and that the committee will take up the substitute on Tuesday.
One legislator, who is in favor of gambling as a concept “if we can get the bill right,” told reporters off the record that the bill as then written “was a garbage bill” and had to be rewritten. He added that negotiations with House members were ongoing on the contents of the substitute.
Thursday was day 27 of the 2021 Legislative Session. The 1901 Alabama Constitution limits the Legislature to a maximum of 30 days in a regular session.
Thursday came and went with no action on the proposal from former Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, to authorize a number of dog tracks and quasi-illegal gaming establishments across the state to be given exclusive rights to do casino gambling.
The bill, at least in its current iteration, would also tell the governor that she “shall” negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who already operate three casinos in the state under the authority of the 1980s federal Indian Gaming Act.
In addition to legalizing slot machines, table games, and electronic bingo at the approved casinos in the state, the legislation would allow there to be a sportsbook in the state where gamblers can lawfully bet on football, basketball, baseball, car racing and other sports.
The extremely complicated legislation would also create a state lottery. A poll prepared by the proponents of the massive gambling expansion in the state taken before the COVID-19 pandemic shows wide support for a lottery and lesser support for the casinos, but still a majority.
Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, told reporters Thursday that he hopes “that it will come to a vote on the house floor.”
The speaker said that the bill that is being written now will not come up when the Legislature meets again on Tuesday, day 28 of the regular session. McCutcheon said that a vote on the House floor could come on either Thursday, May 6, day 29 of the session, or on the last day of the legislative session, May 17.
The bill still has not been approved by any House committee to even be on the floor and since it has not been written yet, no member (much less the press or the public) has even seen the bill. Members are being told that they will get to see the bill on Saturday. Whether the press or the public will be allowed to see the bill before Tuesday is unknown at this time.
State Reps. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, and Reed Ingram, R-Montgomery, told reporters that legislators are not being given enough time to see the bill and carefully consider the legislation.
“The issue is that we are not going to get the gambling bill before this weekend,” Wingo said. “How can we make a sound decision on something that will have such an enormous impact on the future of our state?”
The leadership is still barring the public from the Statehouse without an appointment and requiring everyone, even members, to continue wearing masks.
“There should be public hearings,” Wingo said. “They are asking us to make a decision by Thursday. I want the people to have public hearings and be able to review it and have committee hearings like we normally do. Rep. Ingram and I would like to have public input.”
Ingram said he also hasn’t seen the bill.
“We should have at least 30 days,” Ingram said of the time that legislators should have to review the bill and seek public comment for or against the proposal.
“It is not an open bid process,” Ingram said. “The gaming commission will be allowed to reject the highest bidder based on performance.”
McCutcheon told reporters that the bill still allows just “six sites” in addition to the three facilities currently operated by the Poarch Creeks.
Sources say that those sites are Victoryland in Macon County, Greenetrack in Greene County, the Birmingham Race Course in Jefferson County, the former Country Crossings site in Houston County, the Mobile Greyhound Park in Mobile County and the sixth site near Chattanooga to be either in Jackson or Dekalb County.
The Whitehall facility in Lowndes County is being left out of this current gambling bill, reporters are being told at this time.
McCutcheon was asked if the legislation would force other operators — there are at least three in Greene County alone — to close.
“We are not getting into that,” McCutcheon said. “We are leaving that to the gaming commission.”
Wingo, who represents Tuscaloosa County, which is home to the University of Alabama, was concerned that siting a casino at Greentrack, so close to the UA campus, would be a problem.
“Why are we siting a casino just thirty minutes away from 30,000 university students?” Wingo asked. “Is that the kind of environment that parents of students want for their children?”
Ingram said: “I could probably support the lottery and give the people the right to vote on it.”
“My district does not get any input at all in this,” Ingram said. Even though his Montgomery district is close to the Victoryland site in Shorter. “I cannot have a town hall meeting about it,” he said.
Wingo said that the casino gives away “free alcohol in there” without checking to see if the students are 21.
McCutcheon was also asked about the medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 46.
“We are anticipating that bill coming to the floor for a vote as well,” McCutcheon said. “It is hard to guarantee a timeline.”
“I do anticipate some floor amendments,” the speaker said. “It is going to be a tough vote.”
McCutcheon said that it is a priority of leadership that the members have the opportunity “at least to look at it.”
McCutcheon said that he would like to have a vote on the gambling issue because “the Senate did a lot of work on that bill; and the key players in the gaming issue that are already in the state” have come together to work on the legislation, but cautioned that “if we don’t make it, we are not going to let time rush us into anything.”
“We will try to put it up for a vote,” McCutcheon said. “I think it has got a chance.”