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Gambling bill advances, but problems loom

Language regarding licensing and locations could make or break the legislation.

(STOCK PHOTO)

A package of bills that would allow voters to decide whether to legalize a statewide lottery, six new casinos and sports wagering passed out of a House committee on Thursday, moving it to within one step — albeit a big one — from passage. But even as it moved forward, behind the scenes, issues remained with some of the bill’s language, and multiple sources involved with the negotiations told APR that the issues could derail the legislation. 

As it stands, the package of bills — one a constitutional amendment and the other two establishing the mechanics and oversight — is set to be debated on the House floor on Thursday, the second-to-last day of the 2021 session. Whether it gets there or not, however, is “about 50-50 at this point,” a source told APR late Tuesday evening.

The biggest issue, the sources said, involved language establishing the bid process, licensing and the ability to move the locations from one of the current dog tracks operating in Alabama. That language has been problematic from the start, with the track owners, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, lawmakers and other interested parties all having various issues with it. 

The primary gaming bill, which was given to House members for the first time Tuesday afternoon, legalizes a statewide lottery and sports wagering and allows for six new casino locations — four at current dog tracks and two others in Dothan and a yet-to-be-determined northeast location. Almost from the outset, opponents of the bill have attacked the language placing the locations at dog tracks, claiming that it picks winners and unfairly limits the bidding process. 

However, proponents of the bill point out that there are several good reasons for choosing the tracks — most of which were discussed at length in a report submitted to Gov. Kay Ivey by a gaming study group she empaneled — and that excluding the tracks from the legislation almost certainly dooms it. 

Those dog tracks — VictoryLand, The Birmingham Race Course, GreeneTrack and The Mobile Greyhound Park — have been the economic lifeblood of poor communities, with two of them serving for a time as the largest employers in two of America’s poorest counties. That history has earned the track plenty of goodwill among lawmakers, especially those who represent the districts where the tracks reside, and their lack of support of any gaming legislation almost certainly kills it. 

The current House version of the bill (it has already passed the Senate), however, attempts to appease the opponents by allowing the site locations to be moved if an entity from outside the state managed to out-bid the current track owners and couldn’t reach an agreement to purchase the tracks. It’s a weird what-if that muddies up the fairly straightforward process in the senate version of the bill. 

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“In reality, the fight isn’t worth it,” said one source involved in the negotiations over the bill. “They’re going to get their economic studies and the bid amounts are going to be in the same ballpark. Is an extra $5 million over 20 years really worth risking the whole deal when the state could make $750 million per year?”

Following the committee’s approval, lawmakers, the governor’s office and interested parties went back to work, attempting to reach an agreement on language that would appease all sides. It’s a delicate and sensitive task.   

Tuesday’s public hearing highlighted the importance, however, as lawmakers and speakers expressed concerns both over the tracks being given an advantage and over the track owners not being given enough protection during the bid process. 

Several speakers also complained that other currently operating electronic bingo casinos — in Lowndes and Greene counties — were going to be shut down under the proposed bill. And there was the usual proclamations from anti-gambling lobbyists that legalizing any gaming could bring about End Times. 

Both the track owners and the Poarch Creeks declined to comment late Tuesday, with each saying they were still in the process of reviewing the legislation.

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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