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Gambling legislation is a vote shy, carried over until at least Thursday

Continuing a decades-long trend, a seemingly sure-to-pass gaming bill came up a vote shy on Tuesday night. But it’s not dead.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this: Gambling legislation almost passed in the Alabama Legislature. 

A compromise gaming bill that emerged from a legislative conference committee breezed through the House of Representatives with ease on Tuesday evening, and seemed poised to move just as easily through the Senate. But with a razor-thin margin, Sen. Greg Albritton, the bill’s sponsor, who had spent several minutes on the senate floor praising the bill and encouraging his fellow senators to vote in favor of it, then voted against the conference report – signaling that he would also be a no on the bill itself. 

The conference report was approved 20-15. But the gambling legislation itself, which includes a constitutional amendment, required 21 votes. With the votes falling short, senate leadership elected to carry the bill over until a later time. 

It was a confusing, chaotic scene on the senate floor. 

“I told them at least 10 days ago that I couldn’t vote for the bill because of what it does to my constituents,” Albritton said, explaining why he voted against his own bill. Albritton’s constituents include the reservation lands of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. 

“When they moved from historical horse racing and to not just electronic bingo but electronic games, and then took it a step further (adding a provision that would prevent future expansion by the Poarch Creeks), it was just too far,” Albritton said. 

The legislation that emerged from the conference committee was a sort-of mashup of a bill passed by the House back in February and a Senate version passed last month. The compromise legislation would implement an education lottery, seven electronic games casinos, a compact for full casinos at the Poarch Creeks’ three current locations and would establish a gaming commission to oversee it all. 

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There was no sports wagering in the bill and it killed all existing county-specific constitutional amendments, which would eliminate more than 200 existing “illegal gaming” casinos around the state. 

The bill was not popular with the Poarch Creeks, and representatives from the tribe made that point clear throughout the day on Tuesday. While the legislation maintained a competitive advantage for the tribe over the traditional casinos, by giving PCI full casinos with table games, it also offered a somewhat more level playing field, by allowing the seven locations (four dog tracks and casinos in Lowndes, Houston and Greene counties) to operate an array of electronic games. 

It also, oddly, prevented the Poarch Creeks from expanding beyond lands currently held in trust – a needless hurdle to any future gaming negotiations. (A tribe would have to negotiate any future gaming expansion with a state and would require approval from the state to operate any Class III games.)

Still, even without PCI’s approval, the legislation was said to have 22 solid votes heading into Tuesday night’s senate vote. When senators entered the chamber late Tuesday night, there was an air of confidence that the legislation would be approved. The 20-vote total was a stunner. 

It’s unclear if the legislation has a chance. It can’t be changed or amended at this point, and it’s too late in the session for substitute legislation. So it comes down to flipping one vote. 

“I do think there’s a pathway for this legislation to pass, just not through me,” Albritton said. He said if it doesn’t pass, he sees several years of lawmakers pushing their county-specific amendments, further muddying an already murky gambling landscape in the state. 

The weird failure on Tuesday evening fits with a decades-long pattern of gambling legislation moving right up to the point of passage and then oddly falling just short of getting over the line. This failure, however, could be particularly costly for Alabama politicians. 

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The general public, which has become increasingly accepting of gambling, was very supportive of the efforts to allow a vote on a lottery and gaming. In all polling of the issue, more than 90 percent of respondents said they believed the legislature should give people the right to vote on the issue. And with plenty of attention over this session’s efforts, Tuesday’s failure is certain to increase pressure on senators to get something done. 

Whether it will be enough to flip a single vote is anyone’s guess. But the senate will be back in session on Thursday, so there’s a little more than 24 hours to figure it out.

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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