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Despite threats and hurdles, a new comprehensive gambling bill is coming

The usual entities are lining up against a new gambling bill, but this bill, unlike dozens in the past, is unique and might finally get to the finish line.

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Andy Whitt isn’t exactly an attention-seeking politician. That makes him more than somewhat unique in today’s world of social media hot takes and ridiculous pandering among those serving in public office. 

It also made him the perfect choice to take on Alabama’s gambling problems. A low-key, straight shooter with no ties to gaming and serving a district with no legal gambling facilities and no immediate possibilities of having one, Whitt was an obvious choice. 

Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, who more than a year ago tasked Whitt with the job of investigating Alabama’s current gambling situation and crafting legislation that would address the entirety of the issue, said he knew if he gave Whitt the job that it would get done and that it would be thorough and clean. 

“It’s a job you give to your enemy,” Whitt joked recently. 

He’s not wrong. Addressing Alabama’s many and deeply-rooted gambling problems is a headache no sane individual would take on voluntarily. In addition to the complicated web of gambling regulations that include state, local and federal laws, there’s also an endless number of interested parties – some of them not exactly strict followers of the rule of law. 

Dealing with all of that is not a job you can give to a publicity hound or a weak-willed lawmaker or a dummy. And it’s not a job that can be taken on by the timid, as Whitt has learned. 

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into; I knew it would be complicated and time consuming, but I never expected some of the things I saw and experienced,” Whitt said. “I’ve received some threats – some very personal things from people and a very unpleasant conversation”

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Whitt wouldn’t go into the specifics of the threats, saying only that they came from people who are tied to out-of-state entities. But he did say that there was no mistaking their intent. 

They haven’t worked. 

Within the next couple of weeks, the first version of the gambling bill crafted by lawmakers will drop. Whitt said it will be “written 100 percent by legislators without any input from special interests.” That makes it unique. And the fact that it will have the backing of the Speaker and top Republican leadership in the House makes it unlike any gambling that has come before it. 

“I think we have a real chance to pass this one, because it will address every issue that people have brought up over the last several years,” Whitt said. “It will address a lot of what I’ve seen. It will greatly increase our ability to control illegal gambling in the state. In fact, I’d say that even with the new casinos that will be allowed in the bill, we’ll have an overall reduction in gambling in the state because we’ll finally be able to close down a lot of these illegal operators and keep them closed.”

Whitt said the bill should be on the floor within the first two weeks of the legislative session that’s scheduled to start Feb. 6. 

It will not pass without a fight. 

In addition to the out-of-state entities funneling money through various organizations in the state to fight any effort to legalize and regulate gaming, there are numerous state entities that will also enter the fray. In fact, a big one already has. 

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At least 10 lawmakers have told APR over the last week that various officials with ALFA have contacted them and pressed them “hard” about voting against any gambling bill. The lawmakers said they wouldn’t characterize the conversations as threats, but said the ALFA representatives they spoke with made it clear that “they were going to make my next election pretty difficult” if they voted in favor of the gambling bill. 

APR provided ALFA with several questions about the lawmakers’ comments. While the company didn’t specifically address each question, it provided a statement that covered most of them. 

As a membership organization, the Alabama Farmers Federation’s positions on legislative issues are directed by written policy developed by our grassroots membership,” the statement read. “Members continue to affirm the Federation’s policy on gambling, which states: ‘We support engaging with political partners to prevent the passage or limit the expansion of gambling in the state. We support full enforcement of Alabama’s laws related to gambling. We oppose gambling in all forms including casino gaming, state lottery, sports betting, electronic gaming, and online gambling.’”

Why ALFA – an organization made up of farmers – is so committed to opposing gambling legislation is unclear. It’s difficult to imagine casinos and a lottery significantly impacting the business of farming, or insurance, and the increased regulations and reduction in illegal gambling that could come from the bill would seem to more closely align with the conservative organization’s law-and-order beliefs. 

And regulation is one of the primary goals of the bill being crafted by Whitt. 

“After the things I’ve seen, we can’t continue on like we have been,” Whitt said. “These facilities are everywhere – in every county in the state – and they’re propping up other illegal activity. We have organized crime involved in some.” 

Whitt isn’t simply pulling those comments from the sky. Over the last year, he has visited dozens of legal and illegal gaming operations. Some of them he’s dropped in on his own. Others, he got a ride with local law enforcement. 

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He’s found them in the back of gas stations, in strip malls, in large warehouses, in shuttered restaurants. In one town, he said he found games in the back of a florist. 

“We walked into one place, and the sheriff was with us, and every person immediately jumped up and ran out the back door,” Whitt said, laughing. “Local law enforcement didn’t think anything illegal was happening but those people in there sure did.”

That confusion over the law is one of the primary causes for Alabama’s current wild west of gambling situation. Whitt said he was astonished to receive calls from law enforcement officials and elected lawmakers who wanted to show him the legal casinos operating in their towns. It’s unclear why any of them believed they were legal, Whitt said. 

But such misunderstanding is not uncommon on this topic. In Jefferson County, for example, some municipalities are selling business licenses to casinos that the attorney general claims are illegal gambling operations. Similar situations exist in Walker County and other cities around the state. 

To be fair, the law is very confusing – and in many cases, it is wholly unclear. On the one hand, county-specific constitutional amendments allow for bingo to be played in several counties in Alabama, and federal laws – which govern Native American casinos, such as those operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians – say that electronic bingo machines are a form of legal bingo. Multiple counties also voted to approve the playing of electronic bingo games. On the other hand, Alabama’s Supreme Court has attempted to override those constitutional amendments by formulating its own bingo test and determining that the games can’t legally be played electronically in Alabama. 

But those constitutional amendments also put the sheriff in charge of deciding whether a bingo game is legal or illegal. And those sheriffs are beholden to local voters first and foremost, and they typically lean in favor of bingo operators, because those casinos are dumping buckets of money into the local government and economy. The AG’s office has historically taken an anti-electronic bingo stance, and AGs from Luther Strange to Steve Marshall have executed raids on some casinos in an attempt to shut them down. Usually, the shutdowns last only the time it takes for the establishment to get in a new shipment of electronic bingo machines. 

That’s because the effort and expense required to shutter those casinos isn’t worth the misdemeanor charges that might be leveled against the casino operators – and no one knows that better than the operators. Last fall, Marshall’s office made headlines for raiding a casino in Lowndes County. That same casino had been shut down less than a year earlier. It is back open today. 

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Whitt’s bill will address that problem, and the entire gambling conundrum. Whitt said it will establish a gambling commission that will sell licenses and be in charge of oversight and regulation. Part of the revenue generated from the new taxes on gaming will go towards hiring law enforcement officers to properly police the illegal gambling that’s occurring and shut it down. 

That will be aided by new, stiffer penalties for illegal gambling. Operating illegally in the state will be a felony under the bill. 

The bill also will establish a statewide lottery, authorize casino gaming at several locations around the state (the exact number hasn’t yet been determined but Whitt said they are confined to counties where gaming is currently legal, except for a new casino location in northeast Alabama) and establish sports wagering. The specifics of the bill are still being ironed out, but Whitt said it will be similar to a comprehensive gaming bill that passed the senate two years ago. 

“Comprehensive is the best pathway forward, because it addresses all of the problems and puts this issue behind us,” Whitt said. “We don’t want to have to keep coming back and doing things one at a time. The Speaker wanted this bill to be comprehensive. The governor’s office has been clear that she wants a comprehensive bill. That’s what we’re doing.”

Whitt also pointed out that buried behind all of the uproar about gambling in the bill is the fact that it is a massive jobs bill. An economic analysis of the bill passed by the senate in the 2021 session found that it would create more than 12,000 permanent jobs and have a massively positive economic impact on areas around the casino locations. Those numbers don’t include the temporary impact generated by the construction of the casinos and resorts and the expansion of existing facilities. 

That bill also was projected to generate more than $700 million in tax revenue annually.

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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