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Opinion | There is no easy or quick fix for Alabama’s gambling situation

The AG’s office announced it raided a casino that was “shut down” by authorities just over a year ago. That’s the state’s gambling problem in a nutshell.

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A few days ago, I read with interest an opinion piece from an anti-gambling former leader of the Christian Coalition of Alabama. In that piece, John Giles was heavily critical of efforts to legalize, regulate and properly tax gambling in Alabama, and instead insisted that the state needed only to shut down the illegal operations, not reward them. 

These are good talking points, I guess, if you know next to nothing about the state of gambling – illegal or otherwise – in Alabama. Or if you’re purposefully trying to mislead people on the issue. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that Giles was attempting to do the latter, but he was the head of an organization that was, prior to his tenure at the top, raking in millions of dollars, according to lobbyists who testified under oath before the U.S. Senate, from Mississippi Native American casinos to spout off rhetoric bemoaning the ills of gambling in Alabama. So, maybe he’s not the best source.

If you do have some understanding of the reality of gambling in Alabama, however, you recognize immediately that a position such as Giles’ is pure fantasyland nonsense. 

If you doubt that for even a second, allow me to introduce you to Steve Marshall. He’s the publicity-hungry attorney general for our state, and he would love nothing more than to shut down “illegal casinos” in every county – except, mysteriously, some casinos in Greene County – and hold press conferences and send out press releases weekly touting his grand accomplishments in doing so. In fact, he did so just Wednesday. 

But while announcing that the AG’s office had thwarted yet another gambling operation – this one the White Hall Entertainment Center in Lowndes County – he also included a sentence in the press release that explains just how ludicrous Giles’ position really is. 

It was this: “This facility was previously shut down after the Supreme Court of Alabama issued an order in September of 2022 declaring that the operation of so-called ‘electronic bingo’ was an ongoing nuisance in Lowndes County and should be abated by the Circuit Court.” 

Now, I’m not exactly a math major, but I can count to 14. That’s how many months have passed since that ruling from the ALSC and since White Hall Entertainment was “shut down.” In that time, I know from people in Lowndes County, that White Hall has operated at least 600 gambling machines almost every single day, funding a variety of local charitable organizations, for more than half of those 14 months. 

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Did this occur because Steve Marshall and other law enforcement officials in the county and state chose to turn a blind eye to this illegal gambling? Did they want to “reward” the operators in Lowndes County, as Giles suggested? 

Of course not. 

It happened for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that there is a legitimate legal argument to be made that the facilities shuttered in Lowndes County are operating legally. That the people of the county voted to approve the operation of those games and that the county has in place a valid constitutional amendment that protects those casinos. And according to the Alabama constitution, the local sheriff, not the ALSC or the AG, is the law enforcement official tasked with verifying the legality of those gambling operations. 

But regardless, even if you don’t buy that, there are some other realities at play here. Not least of which is the fact that the crimes in these cases are misdemeanors. Which means you’re asking the AG and other law enforcement agencies to expend limited resources to chase down misdemeanor crimes that the local citizenry mostly approve of, and you want them to do so over and over and over again, all the while butting heads with local law enforcement and state politicians. 

These are facts. You don’t have to like them, and while you can certainly ignore them while writing up opinion pieces, state lawmakers can’t do the same when they sit down to craft laws that might actually address the gambling problem we have in this state. 

The first step, as with any problem, is admitting we have a problem. We’ve got a big one. 

As House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter told me a few weeks ago, the problem is so massive and so out of control that most people can’t grasp it. There are literally thousands of gambling establishments operating in this state today – in every county, in most cities, and mostly operating in plain sight. 

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A lot of this has to do with the decades of patchwork laws we’ve passed, combined with federal laws, that allow for this gambling here and that gambling there. For instance, you know that bingo parlor your granny likes to hit on a Friday night? Welp, that bingo hall operating means that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians are allowed to operate the three electronic bingo casinos they own in this state. 

You see, to operate a local bingo hall, the county had to get approval from the state legislature and then get approval from county voters. If that happened, a new county amendment to the state constitution was put on the books and bingo gambling was allowed in that county. Just like it works with liquor sales in each county. And that county amendment means that a federally recognized Native American tribe is free to operate games on a similar classification level. 

To compete with the Poarch Creeks, in some counties in the early 2000s, amendments were passed that sought to bring existing facilities into competition with the tribe. The citizens understood full well what they were approving, and in most cases the local amendments include wording that mentions “electronic” means of playing the games. 

That patchwork of laws, in addition to the entities that are simply offering games outside of any laws and the federal laws that cover the games offered by the Poarch Creeks, are the root of this issue. 

It’s complicated. And it can’t be boiled down to a simple “arrest everybody” solution. 

Unless you think you can pass a bill that bans all forms of gambling – which would include outlawing everything from church raffles and church bingo to the electronic games (good luck with that) – fixing this issue will require new laws, a regulatory body that deals with the legal gambling and a number of new law enforcement officers to properly patrol the state. 

The only logical option for doing that is to once and for all pass laws outlining what is legal, what’s illegal, and how we’re going to monitor it all.

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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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