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A combination of issues are threatening the comprehensive gambling bill

While supporters remain optimistic, the gambling legislation is facing its first true test this session.

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The gambling bill is off track. 

After supporters of the legislation, which would allow voters to approve a statewide lottery, casino gambling and sports wagering, celebrated its easy passage through the House last week, the legislation has seemingly hit its first pothole in the Alabama Senate. 

Initially slated to go to Senate committee and then the floor this week, Sen. Greg Albritton, one of the proponents of the legislation, told APR that it wouldn’t be on the agenda this week. He declined to elaborate on why, but two lawmakers with knowledge of the negotiations over the legislation said there are still a handful of important issues that need to be ironed out before the 21 votes necessary for passage can be shored up. 

“The votes are likely there, depending on the bill, but there are still a lot of important ingredients missing from this cake,” one lawmaker said. “If they rush this thing, they’ll probably be short. That’s why there’s a delay.”

According to numerous lawmakers, interested parties and lobbyists who spoke with APR on Monday, the most serious issues involve the inclusion of Medicaid expansion, uncertainty about where the Poarch Band of Creek Indians stand and a lack of leadership within the Senate and governor’s office to get the bill passed. 

Numerous sources told APR that the possibility of gambling funds being utilized by opponents of the legislation to peel away lawmakers who might otherwise support it. 

“Essentially, they’re saying: ‘Vote for this and we’ll tell everybody you voted to expand Medicaid,’” one lawmaker told APR. “So, it’s not their moral qualms about gambling. It’s them worrying that the money from gambling might be used to give poor people healthcare. God help us.”

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There is no Medicaid expansion attached to the legislation, and sources have repeatedly told APR – even prior to the ongoing questions regarding gambling – that the state has no plans to expand Medicaid in a traditional sense. It instead is exploring a public-private partnership that would use federal Medicaid expansion dollars to offer private insurance plans to low-income citizens. It is similar to a plan utilized in Arkansas. 

The provision within the gambling bill that would allow for revenue to be utilized for the program is non-binding. 

Even without that issue, however, lawmakers said they are unsure at this point where the Poarch Creeks stand on the bill. Over the past week, the tribe has voiced several issues with the legislation, most notably that it lacked assurances where they are concerned. 

PCI officials proposed two amendments to the bill – one that would provide them with a location in Birmingham, instead of in northeast Alabama, and another that would provide all current operators in the locations mentioned in the bill with an opportunity to make the last and best bid for casino licenses. 

A lawmaker who spoke with APR said he believed that they could work through the issues with PCI and make the bill acceptable. However, a source close to the tribe said that for now, it still can’t support the legislation as is. 

The pathway forward – if there is to be one – will almost certainly involve a push from the top – either Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed and/or Gov. Kay Ivey. Both have voiced support for the current gambling legislation, and Ivey’s office was quick to issue a press release celebrating its passage in the House last week. 

But multiple sources told APR that neither Reed nor Ivey have stepped forward over the last few days to steer the legislation through its current crisis. And as a result, the problems have grown worse. 

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“They’re going to have to lead on this, because they have the power to do so,” one lobbyist said. “They need to remember those polls that showed 90 percent of the people of this state want to vote on this legislation. I’ve heard from lawmakers on both sides of this thing wondering where they’re at.” 

For now, while the bill is obviously facing its biggest hurdles so far, there remains some optimism. Most of the lawmakers who spoke with APR, including one who won’t support the legislation, said they believe it could pass with just a couple of tweaks or even a hard push from leadership. 

That has a lot to do with the general public making calls to their lawmakers. According to one lawmaker in a heavily Republican district, his office has been inundated with phone calls in support of the bill. 

“The problem with stopping it is that it’s so damn popular with people,” one source said.

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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