The Alabama House of Representatives met Thursday with the objective of passing a comprehensive gambling bill, Senate Bill 319 by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. During the day, negotiations between the House leadership and House Democrats on the comprehensive gambling bill collapsed, and the measure never came to the floor of the house for consideration — neither did a simple lottery, which was the fallback position of House leadership.
“There was not enough votes to pass it,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, told the body. “We are not going to bring the bill if we do not have the votes.”
After passing the medical marijuana bill, SB46, the House recessed at 12:30 p.m. until 4 p.m. to give the side time to negotiate. At the deadline, the House gaveled in and then went back into recess until 5:30 p.m. By this time, everyone knew that the grand gambling deal that had been negotiated by the Senate was coming apart.
“23 days were gone in the session when we got the gambling bill from the Senate,” McCutcheon explained to reporters. “We worked feverishly to get it through the committee process and into position to come to the floor.”
“The minority caucus had some issues with the bill,” McCutcheon said. “We were meeting with them.”
A key sticking point in the negotiations was Democratic demands that any gambling bill include Medicaid expansion.
‘They were not pleased with the wording,” McCutcheon said. “They wanted the expansion of Medicaid in the bill.”
McCutcheon said that the wording said that some of the gambling proceeds would go to rural healthcare and that Medicaid expansion, as well as rural health clinics, were options. “They wanted more specific language,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon said that was not the only issue that came up in the discussions. They wanted Black people to have the opportunity to own some of the facilities and then there was the issue of other gambling facilities.
“There are about 18 gambling facilities across the state” that would be left out of the comprehensive gambling package, McCutcheon said. Democrats wanted these facilities to remain open. “There were several issues with the county gaming bingo machines.”
“We knew these issues were sticking points,” McCutcheon said to reporters. “The minority caucus should have brought up these concerns earlier in the process.”
House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels acknowledged to reporters that the caucus did have these concerns. Daniels said that he understands that the majority is going to get the largest part of what they want in any deal, but when the minority’s voters are crucial to passing the legislation, they want their issues addressed.
“At the end of the day, we want what is best for Alabama,” Daniels told reporters.
With the gambling deal ostensibly dead, the House then adopted a 25-bill special order calendar that did not include the gambling legislation. The first bill on that calendar was year-round daylight savings time legislation and members began debating that proposed legislation. Meanwhile, Republican House leadership met behind closed doors to look for an alternative strategy.
“The next step was to do another approach and come back and do a simple lottery bill,” McCutcheon explained to reporters. “Several members came to me and said, ‘Why not do a simple lottery?’”
While the House was debating legislation to impose liquor taxes on special development districts in unincorporated areas of Cullman County and how to provide homebound blind people with absentee ballots, House leadership was formulating their plan.
As details of the gambling negotiations began to leak out across the body, members began to get frustrated as most of them had not yet seen the new legislation.
“My understanding is that we are trying to take a clear lottery bill,” said Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, during the floor debate on another bill. ”I am not for a lottery, but if we do a lottery, don’t jam it down our throat in the middle of the night. If we are going to get a lottery, we need to get the best lottery possible. Treat it like a business. If you are going to do a lottery, do it right.”
Finally, at 10:53 p.m. bill aimed at blind absentee voters was carried over at the call of the chair, and Rules Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, announced that he was introducing a new special order calendar — with just one bill: the gambling bill.
SB319 had been substituted from a comprehensive gambling bill with casinos and sports betting to a six-page bill that established a constitutional amendment to create a simple lottery. This special order calendar also included a unique provision that all debate on that one bill will end at 11:45 p.m. and the body will then vote the constitutional amendment up or down.
State Rep. Jim Carns, R-Vestavia, opposed both a lottery and Marsh’s comprehensive gambling bill.
Carns said he was going to filibuster the calendar’s adoption and that under the rules of the House, the body could debate the adoption of the calendar for an hour. A bipartisan group of representatives from across all ideological lines stood to join Carns in his challenge.
The one-hour debate on the calendar would have lasted until 11:53 p.m. – past the deadline to vote on the bill. By rule, the legislative day ends at midnight. Jones then withdrew his motion to consider the new special order calendar. This simple motion killed gambling without it ever being introduced.
Several members accused McCutcheon and the leadership of keeping members in the dark.
“Can somebody tell me and the body what is going on?” said Wingo. “I want to know what we can or cannot expect for this last legislative day? I have been here for seven years, and I have not seen anything like this.”
“I agree with Rep. Wingo,” said state Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham. “He has been here for seven years. I have been here for ten, and I have never seen anything like this. What is going on?”
“I feel we wasted our time here today,” Givan said. “We need an oversight committee for the Legislature.”
“I am frustrated. I am upset,” said Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa. “We were caught blindsided by this procedure. I feel personally disrespected.”
“Tensions were so high when we left — I regret that,” McCutcheon said. “We were working so hard.”
McCutcheon told reporters that he had meant to share the bill with all of the members before it was introduced on the new special order calendar.
“As we began to move that bill forward time was running out,” McCutcheon said to reporters afterward. “We thought membership had gotten the copies. When I realized that they had not, that was when I told the Rules Chairman to pull the special order.”
“Nobody was trying to pull the rug behind anybody’s back,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon said that he had informed the minority caucus that there were going to move forward with a simple lottery.
“We were acting in good faith,” McCutcheon stated. “I spoke to the leadership of the minority party and asked them if they could support a lottery and got no response on that.”
McCutcheon was asked if there was still a possibility of bringing a gambling constitutional amendment back on the last legislative day – May 17. “It’s doubtful,” McCutcheon said. “It would take members from both sides of the aisle working together.”