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House committee advances gambling legislation, floor debate could come Thursday

With very little argument and only a single no vote, gambling legislation sailed out of committee and heads to the House floor.

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Gambling legislation that will allow Alabamians to vote on whether to bring a lottery, sports wagering and casinos to the state sailed out of a House committee on Wednesday, and could be up for debate on the House floor as early as today. 

The two-bill package, which includes a constitutional amendment that must be approved by voters, received two “nay” votes, each from Rep. Allen Treadaway, in the 11-member House Economic Development and Tourism Committee.

“I feel like the bill is in a good position at this point,” said Rep. Andy Whitt, the chair of the committee and one of several lawmakers who worked on the crafting of the legislation. 

The gambling legislation is surprisingly popular among lawmakers this session, and after years of attempting to solve Alabama’s gambling issues, many have expressed optimism about this proposal’s chances. That’s primarily because it has wide ranging support among a number of different factions, and because it is projected to bring in around $1 billion annually for the state in tax revenue. 

But it is not without its detractors. 

Treadaway was one of the most outspoken on Wednesday, finding issues with the way the legislation outlines the bidding process for licenses and because it allows some operators currently conducting electronic bingo to remain open for up to two years. 

During the meeting, Treadaway grilled bill sponsor Rep. Chris Blackshear on the bidding process, which allows for 10 casino locations in specific counties and Birmingham. The legislation also spells out a number of qualifications for a license that a newly-formed gambling commission must consider before awarding a license. Some of those qualifications are designed to give preferential treatment to Alabama citizens. 

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Treadaway argued that the bid process should be completely open, saying after the meeting that if a license could bring $1 billion, it should bring that. Most Alabama licenses are expected to bring less than $20 million, and the provisions, while favorable to Alabama citizens, do not prevent or discourage major casino operators, such Bally’s or Sands, from making winning bids. 

Treadaway also contended that some of the language in the bill, including the portion allowing for current operators in certain counties to remain open for two years, was rewarding criminal activity. He said that while people might call the machines being played in the establishments electronic bingo, they are actually illegal slot machines. 

That is factually inaccurate in almost all cases. While electronic bingo games are designed to look like traditional slot machines, the game play is vastly different and typically not preferred by customers who are accustomed to standard slot machines. Additionally, as Blackshear explained during the meeting, a complicated web of Alabama laws, constitutional amendments, court decisions and rulings from local law enforcement have created a gray area in which it’s not entirely clear what is or isn’t legal in many locations. 

In fact, the legal uncertainty and the rampant spread of gambling operations all over the state is one of the primary reasons many lawmakers have said they’re supporting the current legislation. That legislation increases penalties for illegal gaming and establishes a law enforcement entity working within the newly-formed gambling commission to investigate and regulate illegal gambling operations. 

The legislation also appears to be very popular with voters, who want an opportunity to vote on some form of gambling. Rep. Rolanda Hollis said she has spent a good deal of time recently speaking with people in her Jefferson County district and found overwhelming support. 

“We have so many people traveling to other states to play the lottery, to go gaming,” Hollis said. “The people know. They see what’s happening. We’re paying to put other states’ kids through school. Paying for their infrastructure. And so on and so on. I’m very supportive of this legislation. It makes sense.”

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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