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Alabama’s gambling impasse: It’s not the Baptists, it’s the lobbyists

Gambling legislation this session is unlikely, but a group of lawmakers, with House leadership’s encouragement, are crafting a potential bill.

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The death of gambling for the 2023 legislative session was possibly announced a bit prematurely. 

Just behind the scenes, two House of Representatives ad hoc committees – one Republican and one Democratic – are working to put together gambling legislation that can be successful. They’re taking things slowly, accepting input from all corners and they have no real deadlines, but they’re working just the same. 

“I would say that it’s doubtful that they could get legislation out this session that could be voted on,” said House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter. “But I don’t know that for a fact. The process could move faster – because we do have some pieces already in place – and we could see a bill this session. The only thing I want is a good bill that has support.”

Ledbetter said he has no intention of standing in the way of gambling legislation. He promised that if a bill got out of the ad hoc committees it would be placed first in the Economic Development and Tourism committee, and should it receive a favorable report, it would have “every opportunity” for a House vote. 

That’s a bit of a change from his predecessor, former Rep. Mac McCutcheon, who lawmakers said was basically singularly responsible for preventing gaming legislation from advancing last session. (McCutcheon has denied this, saying the bills offered didn’t have the necessary support.)

Gambling proponents in the legislature, particularly in the Senate, which has already passed comprehensive gaming bills twice in the past five years, have not minced words about their discontent with “House leadership” over the stalled gaming bills. Not simply because the bills didn’t come up for votes, but also because leadership didn’t offer support for the bills. 

“They’ve basically been a wet blanket in the House – leadership has,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, one of the most vocal and active gambling legislation supporters in the legislature. “We’ve passed bills twice now and they didn’t do anything. We can’t get much of a commitment from them in the House that they’ll move.”

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  Part of the stagnation comes from two big lobbying groups, Albritton said – ALFA and the Business Council of Alabama. Both groups wield tremendous political power in the state and both aren’t very happy with potentially welcoming casino owners and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to the powerbrokers club, Albritton said. 

There’s already no political downside for a lawmaker who remains noncommittal on the gambling issue. And if ALFA and BCA are pushing members of the legislature in the opposite direction, that becomes an even bigger obstacle. 

“The big mules don’t want the competition,” Albritton said. “This is all political. Everything about this deal makes sense for the state. But it’s political, so nothing happens. It used to be that the fight was over the morals of the issue, but we’ve got gambling everywhere now and that’s not really a concern. Now it’s just political. It’s not the Baptists, it’s the lobbyists.”

Albritton is certainly right about one thing: A comprehensive gambling bill makes a lot of sense for the state. 

Currently, there are at least two dozen casinos operating within the state of Alabama. At the same time, thousands of Alabamians travel across state lines each week to purchase lottery tickets in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. Thousands more travel to casinos in Mississippi or other states. 

Yet, Alabama receives very little revenue from any of this gambling. That’s because most of it occurs either outside of the state or within the three large casinos operated (legally) by the Poarch Creeks. Other electronic bingo/historical horse racing casinos do contribute tax revenue, but far less than what they would bring in for the state for slot machines taxed at average rates. 

Alabama finds itself in this gambling purgatory because of a long, tortured history of missteps, political fights and bad luck. Now, to fix the situation properly requires a comprehensive bill that addresses a number of different types of gaming, carves out exceptions for certain long-standing gaming operators and starts from scratch on regulation. 

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The recent bills passed by the Alabama Senate have done those things. The most recent one, sponsored by Albritton, would have established four full casino sites at the current dog tracks in Alabama and would have allowed the Poarch Creeks to operate a fifth location in northeast Alabama. Additionally, it would have started an education lottery, implemented sports wagering and authorized the governor to enter into a compact with the Poarch Creeks to allow expanded gaming at the tribe’s other three facilities. A separate bill by Albritton would have dealt with the regulatory aspects, including establishing the state’s first gaming commission. 

It was estimated that Albritton’s comprehensive bill would have generated more than $750 million annually for the state and created between 12,000 and 15,000 permanent jobs. Those figures did not include revenue from a potential Poarch Creek-state compact and the thousands of construction jobs generated by the building and renovations at the various casino locations. 

“I think comprehensive is the best way to go,” said Ledbetter, when asked what his preference would be for any potential gambling bill. “We have to do something to get this all under control. Gambling has spread all over this state and we need to properly regulate it – that’s the big key for me, the regulation portion of this. 

“But also, I want to make sure that we do this right. This is an important issue for the state and it will be something that’s with us for years to come. We need to make sure we’re passing the best possible bill.”

Ledbetter said that Rep. Andy Whitt is taking the lead from the GOP side on crafting legislation, while Rep. Sam Jones is leading the Democratic caucus. He expects those two sides to work together to produce a bill that has both bipartisan support and enough votes to pass. 

“We’re still in the very early stages right now, and really just trying to see what we can do,” Jones said. “I personally feel pretty optimistic about it. Now, I say that with us having not put anything out there for other members to see, but I think there’s a number of people in the House who feel that it’s time to get this done.

“I’ve heard some people say that we can’t get it done because we have too many new members. I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes, and this may be true in this case, those new faces and fresh perspectives are exactly what you need to get something like this done.”

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Jones said the early discussions with members leads him to believe that any potential bill would likely be a comprehensive one, similar to the 2021 bill offered by Albritton, with “a few changes.” 

Whatever might happen, Albritton is encouraging speed. He said every day the legislature fails to act, it’s another day of lost revenue for the state and another day of progress for surrounding states. 

“We’re already so far behind on this compared to states all around us,” he said. “Even now, if we pass a lottery, we’ll have people in this state who live close to the borders who will continue to travel to the other states to buy lottery tickets because they’re in the habit of doing so. We need to move this along. Actually, we should have gotten it done two years ago.”

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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