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Alabama House passes its first ever comprehensive gambling legislation

The two-bill package, including a constitutional amendment that must be approved by voters, now moves to the senate.

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For the first time ever, the Alabama House on Thursday passed legislation to approve casino gambling, sending a comprehensive gaming package that also includes sports wagering and a state lottery to the Alabama Senate. 

The two-bill, comprehensive package, which also establishes the state’s first gambling commission and increases penalties for illegal gaming, is the first ever statewide gambling bill to make it out of the House, where multiple pieces of gambling legislation have gone to die in years past. On Thursday, though, it passed with ease and with surprisingly little pushback from lawmakers. 

If approved by the Senate, the constitutional amendment – one piece of the legislation – will be placed on the November ballot for approval by voters. Polling shows – and even the bills’ detractors have admitted – that the referendum is almost certain to pass by a wide margin. 

“My goal from the very beginning was to offer Alabamians an opportunity to vote on this issue for the first time in 25 years, and today’s passage of HB151 and HB152 marks a significant milestone in accomplishing that goal for our state,” House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter said. “Rep. (Andy) Whitt, Rep. (Chris) Blackshear and members of the House Gaming Study Group deserve all the credit. They studied the issue, identified solutions and crafted the strongest gaming legislation this body has ever seen.” 

If approved by the Senate and then voters, the legislation would bring a statewide lottery similar to those in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, allow for sports wagering at casinos and through online apps, such as Draftkings and FanDuel, and provide for up to 10 full casino licenses for specific counties around the state. 

The bill seemingly has massive public support and achieved a rare bipartisan push in the legislature. It also was the only gambling bill in state history to get the public support of the governor, House speaker and Senate president. 

“When you’re a part of baking the cake, it’s hard not to eat it,” said House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, as he celebrated the passage. “We were happy to have a seat at the table and to be able to have meaningful input on this bill. I don’t think anyone got all that they wanted, but it’s a good bill.”

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Tax revenue from the gaming and lottery could exceed $1 billion annually, and a number of high priority issues are set to get that funding. That includes expanding mental health care options and rural health care offerings in some form. Medicaid expansion has been rumored to be a secret piece of the legislation, but several lawmakers have told APR that plans are in the works for a health care expansion that would be somewhat similar to Medicaid expansion but more in line with what some other red states have attempted. 

The newfound popularity of gaming legislation among House Republicans can be traced to the healthcare crisis facing many rural districts. While GOP lawmakers have been cautious to publicly state their support for expanding Medicaid in order to save rural hospitals and retain healthcare workers, privately, many have lobbied the governor’s office and legislative leadership for a solution. 

It also helps that the issue has such broad public support and can be presented in the form of a constitutional amendment, which requires voter approval. That setup allowed lawmakers who might ordinarily avoid a controversial vote to instead say they were merely passing along the option to their constituents. 

Additionally, the rampant spread of gaming in several forms all across the state, coupled with lotteries and casinos available in neighboring states and sports wagering commercials dominating advertising during most college and pro sporting events, have lessened the resistance to gaming even among conservatives. It’s now viewed as simply another form of legal entertainment available to consenting adults. 

The spread of illegal gambling enterprises around Alabama, and their lax rules and criminal behavior, also led many to realize that a regulated and legalized form of gambling conducted by professional businessmen was a much better option. 

“I have long said the people of Alabama deserve to have another say on gaming, and today’s passage of HB151 and HB152 in the House is an important step forward and very significant, as this has not been accomplished by the House in years,” Gov. Kay Ivey said. “The proposal passed by the House will clean up and crack down on the rampant illegal gambling and will give Alabamians the opportunity to have their say on regulated, limited forms of gaming. This is a tough, complex issue, and I commend Rep. Chris Blackshear, Rep. Andy Whitt and House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter for their leadership. I also commend each House member who voted today to limit, regulate and tax gaming and lottery activities in Alabama. 

“I will remain engaged as this legislation moves to the Senate. In their current form, these bills will continue to have my support.” 

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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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