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Alabama citizens will most likely be denied a chance to vote on gambling

Because of special interests and out-of-state meddling, Alabama citizens likely won’t get a chance to vote on gambling, losing out on billions in revenue.

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Members of the Alabama House of Representatives took their job seriously, spending some 13 months working to craft a comprehensive gambling bill that would allow Alabama citizens the right to vote on the issue. 

There were several committees that worked through the myriad issues that complicate gambling legislation. Several House members spent time riding around the state with law enforcement officials, seeking to better understand the saturation of illegal gambling taking place in the state. They spent hundreds of hours conversing with interested parties and the lawmakers who represent areas with current legal gambling operations. 

The result was a piece of legislation that would allow voters to approve up to 10 casino licenses, sports wagering, a statewide education lottery and a gambling commission with a law enforcement entity to crack down on the billions of dollars of illegal gaming happening annually in the state. It was the first major piece of gambling legislation to receive passage in the House, and it did so with ease. 

And then the Senate ripped it to shreds in less than a week. 

“It is very frustrating to see what has happened,” said Rep. Sam Jones, during an interview on the Alabama Politics This Week Podcast. “We worked for 13 months to craft a very good bill and it was undermined in less than six days by the senate. I honestly, at this point, don’t know where things go. I don’t think anyone does.”

One thing is abundantly clear, however: House members, and particularly those who worked so hard on the original legislation and took so many threats from Alfa and other special interest groups fighting the legislation, are very resistant to the senate version. 

Because the senate version is a shell of what once was. 

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The new version doesn’t include casino gaming at all, except for the potential to award the Poarch Band of Creek Indians a compact that would allow for full casinos at their three current locations, and also eliminates sports wagering. 

“Those are two of the biggest revenue generators,” said Jones, who was the chair of the Democrats’ gaming committee. “With those included, the gambling legislation was projected at something like $1.2 billion annually. Without them, you’re looking at around $300-$400 million. You really get to the point without them that you don’t have revenue to do most of the things that were very popular with the public, such as the education lottery component. 

“In the Senate version, the money from the lottery is removed from education and it goes into a lottery fund for different things. That’s not what the people want.”

Polling on potential gambling legislation has shown high approval numbers for lottery, and gambling revenue in general, that is devoted to education spending, particularly college scholarship programs for low-income students, and to health care expansion. Those numbers dip significantly when the revenue goes into a general fund that is controlled by lawmakers to devote to any number of projects, including the building of new prisons – a highly unpopular option. 

Jones said he fears that the result of the Senate’s bludgeoning of the original bill will be that nothing passes. If that’s the case, there likely won’t be another gambling bill – at least not one of the scope of the House bill – for years to come. 

“I really do feel like that if we can’t come to an agreement, it will be a very long time before anyone attempts gambling legislation again,” Jones said. 

It is projected that Alabamians spend more than $3 billion annually on gambling, with much of the revenue from that going to surrounding states. Alabamians have sent scores of Georgia children to college for free over the past 20 years, thanks to proceeds from Alabamians who play that state’s lottery. Meanwhile, Tennessee and Florida officials have reported that the lottery sales locations with the highest revenues each year are all along the Alabama border. And in Mississippi, where casino gambling is legal, Alabamians spend so much money that casino owners there have spent tens of millions lobbying against the proposed gambling expansion in Alabama. 

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In total, Alabama loses more than $1.2 billion annually because it lacks comprehensive gambling laws.

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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