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Opinion | Sometimes, an ag center has to die

Angered by the handling of gambling legislation, House members on Tuesday appeared to kill an ag center in retaliation.

The floor of the Alabama Senate. John H. Glenn/APR
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You can’t always get what you want, and in the rudderless Alabama Senate, you sometimes can’t even get what you need. 

The business of the Alabama Legislature ground to a near halt on Tuesday afternoon, as Sen. Shay Shelnutt, angered over the failure of his bill providing funding for a large agricultural center in his district, executed a one-man filibuster, effectively blocking all House-passed legislation. He promised to continue through Wednesday, which would be the last normal day of business for the Legislature in the 2024 session. 

Shelnutt really needs that ag center, he told his fellow senators following a very public rebuke by Sen. Vivian Figures, who told Shelnutt that he should “take it like a big boy” instead of being so selfish. 

But it doesn’t much matter what Shelnutt needs. That ag center is at the top of the legislative wish list for the Alabama Farmers Federation — an organization that has continuously meddled with the passage of a comprehensive gambling package that passed out of the House earlier this year. When that gambling bill was carved up by Alfa-backed senators and all but killed by those same senators, the House sponsors of the gambling legislation, and House leadership, apparently decided to put a horse head in the bed so everyone better understands the stakes. 

After the ag center bill was sent to a conference committee, where each house sends three lawmakers to hammer out a compromise bill, House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, who has made no secret his anger over the senate’s handling of the gambling package, appointed two of the primary forces behind the gambling bill — Reps. Andy Whitt and Sam Jones — to the conference committee.  

Guess which way Whitt and Jones voted on the ag center bill.

Horse head delivered. 

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And so, Shelnutt threw a tantrum. Which, to be honest, is probably just fine with the folks in the House. Sure, they’d like to get their bills passed, but they’d also like to give the Senate a little taste of their own medicine. Even if it’s ultimately all for show. 

Let’s be clear about something: A bill like the comprehensive gambling package that passed the House doesn’t just happen in a couple of days, or even a couple of months. 

That bill, which would have allowed Alabama citizens to vote to approve seven casino licenses, sports wagering, a statewide lottery and a Poarch Band of Creek Indians compact, had been worked on for more than a year. Everyone in a leadership position, including the leadership in the senate (where everyone pretended that its arrival was the first they’d heard of gambling legislation), was aware and had a hand in crafting at least the initial outline of the bill. Hell, the bill the House passed was essentially the same bill that passed out of the Senate twice in recent years. 

But Senate President Greg Reed, who will have to explain his motivations to you because I don’t understand them, acted as if he was caught off guard by it and essentially turned over the debate of the bill to a group of senators who had no interest in passing it and cared far more about serving their own interests than the interests of their constituents. 

And no one in senate leadership ever stepped in to help those working in good faith on the package. 

We’re talking about a bill that would have brought in more than a billion dollars annually in tax revenue. College scholarships. Health care expansion. Mental health care expansion. School safety. More than 12,000 permanent jobs. Millions more in tourism dollars. 

And leadership acted like they were dealing with legislation to pick the new state cookie.

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In the meantime, the entire goal of those working against the bill was simple and very effective: Break apart the union between the dog track/bingo parlor owners and the Poarch Creeks. 

That union was the driving force behind the legislation advancing through the House, but the relationship was always flimsy. And it wouldn’t take many changes to a gambling bill before the two sides’ interests went in opposite directions, with each side pulling along a number of lawmakers and the required votes to get anything passed. 

The bill that left the senate was utter trash, written by people who have no deep understanding of the complicated issues at play and no real desire to actually get anything passed. That bill stripped away the casinos and sports wagering, offering only a Poarch Creek compact, a lottery and historical horse racing machines at the dog tracks. 

It likely wouldn’t have paid for the new gaming commission that was part of the bill. It certainly wouldn’t have paid for scholarships and health care expansion. 

House members and leadership were angry. So they refused to concur and sent the bill to a conference committee. 

During that committee, the games continued. In order to get revenue numbers up, the new, compromise bill would give the dog tracks and three other locations electronic games – essentially casino games without the dealers. That was a problem for the Poarch Creeks, but not necessarily a deal killer. 

The deal killer came later, according to Sen. Greg Albritton. A provision inserted into the bill specifically prevented the Poarch Creeks from expanding gaming operations outside of their currently held lands in trust. Albritton said when he saw it, he knew it was over. He told people it was over. 

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Poarch Creek officials went from being unhappy with the legislation to actively trying to kill it. 

And, well, for Alfa and a host of other interests working behind the scenes – most of them funded by entities operating gaming in other states who want desperately for Alabamians to keep sending their kids to college – it was mission accomplished. 

It’s a shame. Really, it is. Because that initial gambling bill would have fundamentally changed Alabama for the better in a number of ways. It would have given so many disadvantaged kids a real shot to earn a college education or a work certification. It would have provided so many folks living in rural areas of this state with the health care services to better their lives for generations. And it could have provided the mental health care necessary to save thousands of lives. 

It also would have shuttered a number of true criminal enterprises operating around the state, using illegal gambling as a means to fund a vareity of other illegal activities. 

But instead, we played politics. We had a handful of people allow personal ambition and/or professional fear to override their duty to serve their constituents, who have made it very clear that they want an opportunity to vote on this issue. 

So, maybe what happened on Tuesday was at least some sort of poetic justice. Some sort of an eye for an eye. Yeah, Alfa and the other groups and those self-serving, weakling lawmakers were successful in keeping Alabamians from voting on gambling. 

But the ag center dies too. 

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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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