Gambling’s back on the agenda. Sen. Greg Albritton on Thursday introduced a new comprehensive gaming bill, which would bring a lottery, expanded gaming and sports wagering if voters approved it in November.
The bill is similar to one that came within a late dust-up with some Democrats – an oddity in the never-ending gaming wars in this state – of passing last legislative session. Albritton’s bill irons out the handful of sticking points – primarily by providing satellite locations to facilities in Lowndes and Houston counties and open the bid process in Greene County – that caused enough chaos to derail last year’s version.
During a press conference Thursday, Albritton said repeatedly that his bill has the votes to pass in both chambers. That likely is not over-confidence. Numerous lawmakers on both sides of the gaming fight said that the final version of last year’s gaming bill had enough votes to pass and support for gaming in the state, even among Republican lawmakers, has never been higher.
“I know that there will be issues and amendments added,” Albritton said. “I’ve been around for enough of these bills that I know it’s never what you expect. We have the votes to pass this.”
It’s not hard to understand why the votes are there. Attitudes towards gaming, thanks to so many options in surrounding states and around Alabama, have shifted among conservative voters. With little political risk and annual revenues projected to exceed $750 million, it’s a no-brainer.
The devil, as always, will be in the details.
Albritton’s bill would allow for sports wagering, a statewide lottery and five full casinos that fall under state licensing control. It would establish a gambling commission to oversee those operations.
The revenue, under Albritton’s bill, would be split between a scholarship program (99 percent of lottery funds would be devoted to scholarships/tuition), the general fund budget and local governments.
The casinos would be placed at the current dog track locations in Greene, Jefferson, Macon and Mobile counties, but the licenses would be bid out. That means that an outside entity who outbids the track owners for a license would have to establish a lease agreement with the owner.
That could be a point of contention for some, but the alternative faces two key problems: 1. Current track owners have enough clout to block legislation that would cut them out of the expansion deal, and 2. Cutting those tracks out of the deal would essentially mean shuttering decades-old businesses operated by Alabama citizens and putting dozens of workers out of jobs in some of Alabama’s poorest communities. Not to mention, voters in the counties where the tracks are located have already approved Class III gaming through constitutional amendments, and those communities rely on that revenue.
In addition to the four dog track locations, there would be a fifth location in either Dekalb or Jackson county that would be operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. There would also be two satellite casinos offering only electronic gaming at sites in Lowndes and Houston counties.
In total, though, while Albritton’s bill does expand the types of gaming that can occur, it expands the actual locations by only one – the new facility in northeast Alabama.
“Gambling… is an industry that is running rampant in our state,” Albritton said Thursday. “The state has no control over most of it. Alabama gets no benefit from most of it. But we still get the consequences. We need to take control of it.”
As always, though, when it comes to gaming bills in this state, it is rarely only about the gaming or the popularity of the legislation among lawmakers and the public. Personal ambition and enrichment often come into play, and there are already signs that will be the case with this version.
Two sources familiar with ongoing negotiations related to the gambling bill said that while lawmakers are confident that Albritton’s bill has the votes to pass both chambers, there are efforts under way to block it from getting to the floor in the House. During his press conference, Albritton also hinted at problems with House leadership, saying he hoped the bill got a fair chance in the House.