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Gambling bill still on track after weekend “blip”

Negotiations continue over a proposed comprehensive gambling bill, but all involved believe things are still moving towards passage

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The gambling bill is still on track. 

That was the word Sunday from several interested parties and state lawmakers who have been working on the bill. A “minor blip,” as one lawmaker put it, caused a stir late Friday and sparked a number of rumors at Saturday’s meeting of state Republicans, but the issue appears to be mostly ironed out and everyone, if not on the same page, at least in the same chapter. 

“Some things happened that shouldn’t have happened and it caused a problem,” said Arthur Mothershed, the executive vice president for business development and government relations with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. “I believe we have most of that straightened out and we’re all working together still. We do have a couple of problems with the bill as it’s currently written, but we’re still working with lawmakers so that we can address those issues and get a bill passed that we can all agree on.”

Mothershed declined to go into specifics about the tribe’s issues with the current comprehensive gaming bill, which is set to be in a House committee this week. However, a source familiar with the ongoing negotiations over the legislation said both PCI and local track owners are looking for at least a provision in the bill that allows them to make the last and best bid on the various casino licenses. 

The current bill, which establishes a statewide lottery, sports wagering and 10 casino locations around the state, limits the non-PCI locations to counties or municipalities where either current dog tracks or other operational bingo halls exist. But the bill does not offer protections for the Alabama residents who own those facilities, including the two locales that would be operated by PCI – in Mobile and a northeast Alabama location. 

“They simply want an amendment in the bill that would give protection to the current business owners who’ve been operating and contributing to the state’s economy for decades,” said a lawmaker involved in the negotiations. “That’s not unreasonable by any stretch. We do it all the time for other types of businesses – give an advantage to locals. The state has nothing to lose by allowing them to make the last and best bid.”

However, it was a different set of amendments that sparked rumors late Friday and into Saturday. Proposed amendments from PCI that would give the tribe a casino location in Birmingham, instead of the location in northeast Alabama, were leaked by a lawmaker and rumors that the bill was in trouble quickly followed. 

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The wording of the proposed amendments made it obvious that they were not final drafts ready for insertion into the bill. A person close to the negotiations described them as “negotiation drafts” – amendments that would outline PCI’s wishes on one issue but only a step in the negotiation process. 

The trouble came not only from the leaking of the document, but also from the inclusion of Dr. Lewis Benefield’s name. Benefield is CEO of both VictoryLand and the Birmingham Race Course, and the proposed amendment included a statement that he had agreed with the proposal to allow PCI to operate a casino in Birmingham. 

Benefield denied that on Saturday, saying he had never seen the amendment in question. He also told APR that he felt good about the ongoing discussions with lawmakers and others, and both he and Mothershed said they were still working together amicably to get the best bill. 

“I just want to say that I appreciate the governor’s office, Speaker (Nathaniel) Ledbetter, Rep. (Andy) Whitt, Rep. (Chris) Blackshear and all the people who have worked so hard on this legislation,” Benefield said. “I believe we are working towards getting a really good bill passed – one that works for all of the parties and works best for the people of Alabama.” 

That is also the interest of the Poarch Creeks, who believe the legislation will go a long way towards funding a variety of key initiatives within the state and helping Alabama citizens prosper. 

“We are strongly committed to the future of Alabama and are actively involved in growing our state’s economy,” said PCI Chairman and CEO Stephanie Bryan. “Allowing people the right to vote to make Alabama competitive with our surrounding states in gaming is important to our tourism economy and tax base that funds education, healthcare and other critical services. We commend our state’s leadership from Governor Ivey to Speaker Ledbetter to House and Senate members for putting this priority front and center and we will work closely with them to finalize a bill the people of Alabama can proudly support. We will work towards a bill that will continue to allow us to create jobs, spur economic development, attract tourism dollars and help our neighbors across the state in times of need.”

A lawmaker who has worked closely with the parties involved told APR that he felt the issues would be worked out, because “there’s just not much disagreement,” but that the opposition to the gaming bill had seized on the leaked document to “try and create discord among the parties.” 

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“There are a lot of people out there who don’t have the state’s best interest in mind and they’re working overtime and stooping to new lows to stop this bill,” the lawmaker said. “But we’ve got a good bill and a lot of support.”

Rep. Andy Whitt, who chaired the legislature’s gambling committee, blamed a lot of the issues on “out-of-state” entities working against the bill. 

“Despite what a few out-of-state funded groups will tell you, the only goal with this legislation is to offer Alabamians an opportunity to make an informed decision on the ballot and enable the state to put the bad actors out of business,” Whitt said. “I find it very ironic that many of the opponents to this gaming legislation, in fact, are the most pro Trump supporters in Alabama. If this is a moral issue then did they forget he made much of his money in the Gambling Industry? Despite all of the member threats and hypocritical rhetoric, I believe the current bill is in a good position for House passage”

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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