by Carol Robinson (The Associated Press)
The COVID-19 pandemic stopped any chance for legislation to propose a lottery in Alabama in 2020, but decisions about that and other forms of gambling await lawmakers in the new year.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Gambling Policy issued a report Dec. 18 estimating the state would net up to $300 million a year from a lottery, up to $400 million from casinos, and $10 million or more from sports betting. The report said gambling could create up to 19,000 jobs.
The study group said the current patchwork of gambling in Alabama wastes time and money on political fights, court cases, and law enforcement with little, if any, benefit for the state.
The group recommended a single regulatory authority over all gambling. Alabama’s Constitution prohibits lotteries and most forms of gambling, so the Legislature has to approve a constitutional amendment to make major changes, such as allowing a lottery or casinos. Voters have the last word.
Alabama has three casinos with electronic bingo run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians on tribal lands, bingo in 16 counties where voters approved constitutional amendments, and betting on dog and horse racing in Jefferson, Mobile, Macon, and Greene counties.
Legislators and others in the debates over gambling praised the study group for being thorough. The report spells out the history and legal issues that frustrate efforts for a uniform policy in Alabama. It outlines policies in other states and makes recommendations based on what has worked best.
Some said the report did not reveal much that is new about the stalemate that has blocked legislation to allow a statewide vote on a lottery since 1999. That’s when voters rejected Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposed lottery by 54% to 46%.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh have said they want discussions about gambling legislation to include a lottery, the local bingo operations, and the Poarch Creeks.
The pandemic could put those discussions on hold. It will limit access to the State House for meetings and hearings on an issue the public cares about. The legislative session starts Feb. 2, months before vaccines will be widely available.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who chairs the General Fund committee in the House, sponsored a lottery bill in 2020 that had about 70 co-sponsors in the 105-seat House. It takes three-fifths of the House and Senate, 63 representatives and 21 senators, to pass a constitutional amendment to send to the ballot for voters.
Despite the support, Clouse’s bill had no chance after the pandemic interrupted the session in March. Ivey’s appointment of the study group might have put it on hold anyway.
Clouse said he has not decided if he will sponsor a lottery bill in 2021. He said a key reason for proposing it in 2020 was to try to get it on the ballot in November and take advantage of the high voter turnout.
“I think that’s the best time to vote on it, during a general election,” Clouse said. “But we don’t have another one until November of ’22. So this year is not as time-sensitive. We could do it in the ’22 session.” Clouse said the 70-plus cosponsors to the 2020 bill shows a lottery bill would pass the House.
As for the comprehensive approach to include casinos, sports betting, and a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Clouse said that’s worth considering.
“It’s not a bad idea to try to do something comprehensive,” Clouse said. “The problem is the votes start falling off in the Legislature when you start talking about the comprehensive part. So, that becomes an issue then. I’m not saying you can’t get 63 in the House and you can’t get 21 in the Senate. I think it’s a possibility, but it gets close.”
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, praised the report and supports the comprehensive approach. Singleton is optimistic about a breakthrough this year unless the pandemic disrupts the session.
“I would like to see the solution be lottery, gaming, and sports gambling,” Singleton said. “That’s what I would like to see as a solution. What the bill is, how much taxes we are going to pay, all of that is going to be a legislative function and we’re all going to sit down as men and women together and hopefully we’ll put our input in and see can we make it all work. What’s best for the state of Alabama?”
Singleton represents one of the key factions in the debate. His district includes Greene County, a small county where electronic bingo helps support public schools, ($750,000 a year), the county hospital and nursing home ($600,000 a year), the County Commission ($1.4 million a year), the sheriff’s department and jail ($700,000 a year), plus funding for municipal governments, volunteer fire departments, meals on wheels, and other programs. Greene County bingo representatives presented those numbers to the study group during a meeting in June.
From 1980 to 2004, voters in Greene County and 15 other counties approved constitutional amendments allowing bingo, creating part of the gambling patchwork the study group described.
State attorneys general have tried to shut down electronic bingo, played on machines that look like slot machines. The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled they don’t fit the definition of bingo and are illegal. But advocates in Greene and Macon counties point out that they are the same as the games at the Poarch Creek casinos. Federal law allows tribes to offer electronic bingo in states that allow bingo in any form.
Singleton and other lawmakers have sought protection for the gambling revenue in their counties as a condition of their support for lottery bills. That has made it harder for advocates of a stand-alone lottery to round up the three fifths vote they need. Singleton said the pandemic has drawn attention to needs in Alabama that will require more funding, such as expansion of broadband internet access. He said that could help build support for a plan that includes a lottery, casinos, and sports betting. “As we move closer to the session, I think you’re going to start to hear conversations about it and then we’ll look at how we lay it out, how many licenses they give out, where will the casinos be, if in fact they’re going to be in the state,” Singleton said. “And so, all those things are legislative questions that we have to answer. And I think now that this task force has brought back some answers to some questions that we’re ready to tackle those questions.”
“I feel very optimistic about it and I’m going to utilize as much energy as necessary to try to make it happen,” Singleton said.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, sponsored a lottery bill that passed the Senate in 2019 but stalled in the House. Albritton, chairman of the Senate’s General Fund committee, does not see any reason to be more optimistic about lottery or gambling legislation than before.
“I don’t know why that would be so,” Albritton said. ” We’ve been fighting it for 20 years. And like I said, the study group the governor put together confirmed we have all the information that’s out there.
“I don’t see that there’s been any changes from the past two, three, five years. We’ve still got the same people that want to do it. We’ve got the same controversies that’s out there. We’ve still got the gaming that’s going on without regulation. And to many people, that’s what they want. So, I am just not optimistic that we will be able to put together a plan that will pass.”
During the 2020 session, Albritton introduced a bill making the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ proposal to the state, one that the tribe had promoted in television ads. The tribe’s reservation is in Albritton’s district.
The “Winning for Alabama” plan would have expanded what the Poarch Creeks offer at their casinos, giving them exclusive rights to full-fledged casino games — slot machines and table games such as blackjack and craps. They would operate those games at their three locations on tribal lands in Atmore, Wetumpka, and Montgomery, plus new locations in Birmingham and northeast Alabama. They would pay the state $250 million license fees on the two new resorts, good for 25 years, plus a 25% tax on net revenue from the games at the two new resorts.
The tribe’s plan included a lottery to benefit education and an Alabama Gaming Commission to regulate all gambling. It would have required a constitutional amendment approved by voters and a compact between the Poarch Creeks and the governor.
The Legislature took no action on Albritton’s bill in 2020.
Robert McGhee, vice chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribal Council, said the tribe has withdrawn that proposal. “Right now we have nothing on the table because that was last year of course and it was one of those things that didn’t go anywhere,” McGhee said.