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Opinion | If gambling legislation fails this session, blame historical bigotry

State lawmakers asked the Poarch Creeks to trust them on gambling. All of history said that was a bad idea.

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“The Indians haven’t seen a trail of tears yet. Wait til you pass (the bill). They gonna see a whole trail of tears again for them.” 

Those were the ignorant words of now former Alabama state Rep. John Rogers earlier in this 2024 legislative session, as he argued for language to be included in a comprehensive gambling bill that guaranteed Black business owners a greater advantage. 

Rogers was referencing the Poarch Band of Creek Indians – Alabama’s only federally recognized tribe – who operate three electronic bingo casinos in the state, and who were projected to be major players in the bidding for at least some of the seven additional casino licenses that would have been available had the House bill ultimately been passed and approved by voters. 

Rogers’ point, dumb as it was, was that PCI could be outbid by outside entities for the Alabama licenses, leaving the tribe on the short end of the stick. And apparently, Rogers believed it appropriate to say that such an outcome would be worse than the Trail of Tears. 

For reference, the Trail of Tears, in which the U.S. government forced more than 60,000 Native Americans off their lands and into designated territories west of the Mississippi, resulted in the deaths of approximately 16,000 Native American people. Men, women and children suffered in agony for weeks, succumbing to extreme temperatures, starvation, illnesses and outright murder. 

Not exactly the same as losing a casino license. 

However, the comparison, and the ignorance and history behind it, provides a roadmap for understanding how the historical mistrust between minority groups in this state and Alabama lawmakers led to the gambling legislation faltering in the Alabama Senate. 

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Shortly after Rogers’ comments that day last month in the Alabama House, the comprehensive gambling legislation passed easily. That bill would have allowed voters to approve up to 10 casino licenses, sports wagering and a statewide lottery. It was projected to bring in more than $1 billion annually to pay for all sorts of good things, like college scholarships and expanded rural health care. 

The bill was the result of years of efforts behind the scenes from a handful of electronic bingo casino owners, PCI officials, lawmakers and lobbyists. It was, thanks to Alabama’s complicated gambling history, weird laws and weirder politicians, the only comprehensive bill with a chance to pass. It had the right support from lawmakers, the backing of the interested parties, voters were highly supportive and it covered all of the bases. 

But when the final version hit the floor, there was one thing missing – a guarantee in the bid process that protected Alabama-based operators, including the Poarch Creeks. 

A previous comprehensive gaming bill that passed the Senate two years ago protected the locals by guaranteeing that the casino locations would be locked into current dog track and casino locations. Under such a plan, even if the locals were outbid for the licenses, they still stood to make some money by either selling the properties or leasing them. 

But this year’s version that passed the House didn’t offer such protections. While it limited the locations to the counties where current dog tracks/electronic bingo operations are located, it didn’t guarantee the locations. Which means the locals could have been shut out. 

For the Poarch Creeks, that was too much risk. 

What they asked for instead was a provision that allowed the state operators in each county where the casinos would be located to have an opportunity to make the last and best bid by a specific margin. In other words, if the best out-of-state bid for a casino license was $50 million, the state operators would have an opportunity to top that bid by a predetermined amount. 

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Lawmakers balked. 

And without such a provision, PCI officials told lawmakers, they couldn’t support the bill. 

According to sources familiar with the many negotiations, there were lots of promises behind the scenes. Lots of winks and nods in the Poarch Creeks’ direction, but no firm, on-paper agreement to ensure PCI and other state operators – folks who have been doing business in this state for decades – wouldn’t be shut out overnight. 

PCI officials, sources said, were unwilling to accept untethered assurances. For some strange reason – maybe all of recorded U.S. history, and the flippant way it has been remembered by some, had something to do with it – tribal leaders couldn’t bring themselves to simply trust that the right thing would be done, that promises would be honored. 

So, they held firm. 

Without their support in the Senate, and with Alfa and other special interest groups picking at the legislation, the momentum of the bill faltered. And then failed altogether. 

But with the general public clamoring for gambling reform – and the revenue that comes with it – lawmakers are still under extreme pressure to pass something that might appease the masses, no matter how idiotic and unhelpful it might be. What emerged was a Senate bill that implements a lottery and authorizes the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Creeks. 

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Such a compact would essentially give PCI a casino monopoly – which they didn’t ask for – and would allow current dog track locations to operate historical horse racing games. Revenue from gambling would mostly be spent to prop up a newly-formed gambling commission and law enforcement entity, with the rest going into a pot that lawmakers will ultimately waste in future sessions. 

So, here we are, staring at yet another gambling failure in our legislature – this one of generational significance and historic consequence. The House bill was set to fund scholarships and healthcare for generations of poor Alabamians. 

All because, once again, Alabama officials lack a basic understanding of the mistrust instilled within minority communities in this state after centuries of mistreatment.

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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