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Opinion | Gambling legislation will certainly be doing something, sometime

The Alabama Legislature will vote on gambling legislation this week. Or maybe it won’t.

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Gambling legislation will be voted on by the Alabama Legislature this week. 

Or maybe it won’t. 

That’s where we are with just five days left in the 2024 legislative session – perhaps the session’s most significant piece of legislation is still about 50-50. 

The details of that legislation are even murkier. 

Over the last several days, I’ve spoken to a number of people involved in the ongoing negotiations over the gambling bills. I believe I have a decent enough overview of where things are, but keep in mind that this is a fluid situation. The details – and sometimes major portions – of the bills have changed drastically in a matter of minutes in an effort to maintain the required voting margins. 

So, first, let’s recap where we are. 

Back in February, which seems like 1970s at this point, the Alabama House passed a comprehensive gaming bill that included up to 10 full casino licenses, sports wagering, a lottery, a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and a gaming commission to regulate everything. It was a good, thorough bill that would have generated $1.2 billion in revenue annually, providing college scholarships, enhanced security at public schools across the state, expanded health care and mental health care and more infrastructure spending.

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It passed easily in the House. 

And then the senate, like a toddler with a blowtorch, set it ablaze. 

With little guidance from senate leadership, the gambling debate was hijacked by a handful of senators with disingenuous intentions. They made ever-changing demands, set absurd limitations and generally negotiated in bad faith. 

The proposed legislation was, at times, ridiculous – filled with ideas that were as unworkable as they were unallowable. Senators leading the debates were often ill-informed of current state and federal laws, wholly unfamiliar with Indian Gaming Regulations and generally just winging it. 

“It’s one of the most disorganized, embarrassing displays of governance I’ve ever witnessed,” said a lobbyist involved in the process. “To let a few people who had no intentions of passing anything take control of that process on something as important as this is just insane. But that’s what happened.”

What emerged from the senate is a bill that stripped away sports wagering – the one area in which the state was certain to see significant sustained growth – did away with those full casinos. Instead, there was a lottery, a promise of a Poarch Creek compact and licenses for historical horse racing machines at current dog tracks only. Which is the equivalent of saying, “Yeah, give me the same number of casinos, but only without all the class and with a third of the revenue.”

Gone from the bill were scholarships, school security, health care expansion and pretty much anything else. The revenue generated would split evenly three ways – infrastructure, general education and the general fund. In other words, we’d get almost all the gambling and almost none of the societal benefits. 

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The House members who worked so hard – and took so much crap from the likes of Alfa and others – were rightfully ticked. They voted to non-concur and send the whole mess to a conference committee, where, hopefully, the two sides could hammer out a better bill. 

That was more than three weeks ago. 

Since that time, the various participants – three from each house – have been working back and forth to find common ground. Late last week, the outline of a bill started to take shape. 

That bill – and keep in mind, it could be completely different by the time you read this – would implement a lottery and push Gov. Kay Ivey to enter a compact with the Poarch Creeks. It would also offer up to seven casino licenses for electronic bingo casinos, instead of historical horse racing machines, upping the revenue projections slightly. It would still leave out sports wagering. 

It’s unclear how the revenue will be split, or which projects might be addressed. But it’s safe to say that since many House Democrats are on board with the bill that it would specify certain monies for health care and other social projects. 

One other change is that the bills, which have to be approved by voters, would be voted on in a special election in August or September – moving them away from the general election, where Republicans feared it would make it impossible to win the 2nd congressional district race. 

As of at least Monday, this bill had enough committed votes to pass. It also had some deep issues – the biggest being that the Poarch Creeks are not supportive of it and other parties are only begrudgingly OK with it. There is little enthusiasm, which would seem to make it vulnerable. 

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But then, maybe that makes it the perfect Alabama gambling bill – far from perfect, disliked by even those involved with passing it, begrudgingly accepted and certain to be argued over for years to come; if it even comes up for a vote.

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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