by Mike Cason
The Alabama Senate had its first debate today about a major expansion of gambling across the state that would raise an estimated $500 million or more a year.
Senators who spoke were mostly supportive of the bill, a constitutional amendment to start an Alabama lottery and five new casinos. Some suggested the possibility of adding more casinos.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the sponsor of the bill, said he was open to that possibility and other changes.
Marsh did not ask for a vote on the bill today, but wanted to begin discussions. The Senate will resume the debate when it returns from a one-week break on Feb. 23.
The bill, approved by the Senate Tourism Committee on Wednesday, would apply the money raised to college scholarships, expansion of broadband internet access, rural health care, mental health care, and other programs. It would set up a seven-member Alabama Gaming Commission to regulate gambling.
If the Legislature approves the plan, it would go to voters to make the final decision. Alabama voters have not had their say on a lottery since rejecting Gov. DonSiegelman’s proposal in 1999.
“I do believe it’s time for us in Alabama to address the issue of gaming once and for all,” Marsh said. The senator said he thought the bill had enough support to pass the Senate today but said he wanted to give lawmakers and the public more time to digest it.
Marsh said he plans to take ideas from today’s discussion, emails, and other conversations and make changes to the bill. He said he wants to give voters a proposal that will apply money to the most important needs.
“My goal is to put something before the people of Alabama that treats the state fairly in terms of revenues to be anticipated and has the dollars going to specific programs that the people of Alabama want to see it go to,” Marsh said. The plan would raise $454 million to $672 million in net revenue for the state, according to the Legislative Services Agency. That would include $194 million to $279 million from the lottery and $260 million to $393 million from the casinos. The casinos would pay a 20% tax on gambling, plus license fees.
Four of the casinos would be at the state’s greyhound tracks — the Birmingham Race Course, the Mobile Greyhound facility, VictoryLand in Macon County, and Greenetrack in Greene County. The fifth would be in northeast Alabama, in Jackson or DeKalb County, and would be operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
The casinos’ license fees would be based on the size of their markets.
As the debate began this morning, Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, questioned whether the $100 million license fee for the Birmingham casino would be fair. The license would be good for 30 years.
VictoryLand would pay $50 million for a 25-year license. Greenetrack and the Mobile facility would each pay $5 million for 10-year licenses. The license fee for the Poarch Creek casino in northeast Alabama would be determined by the Alabama Gaming Commission.
Smitherman also said he was concerned that the bill did not directly provide any money for healthcare in urban areas. The bill does dedicate money for rural health care.
Marsh, in response to questions from Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said he would consider changing the bill to allow the Gaming Commission to hear proposals for as many as two other casinos in other parts of the state.
In response to another question, Marsh explained that the bill would allow sports betting, either in person at one of the casinos or online through an authorized internet platform.
Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, said he was concerned that Dothan would not have a casino. In response, Marsh repeated his idea about adding two more casinos to the plan, with the Gaming Commission to hear proposals about where those would be. Marsh said he had been approached by several lawmakers with similar concerns. He said it might be necessary to add two casinos to build enough support for the bill to pass the Senate.
“At the end of the day we’ve got to get something that will get out of this chamber, out of the House and to the people and they believe it is a fair document that everybody has had an opportunity to participate in and vote on it,” Marsh said. “What I’m hearing right now is the fact that the five, if it’s just these five, it could be a problem.”
Marsh said he believes there needs to be a fixed number of casinos and said he was open to the possibility that could be seven instead of five. “The people of the state want to see it tight,” Marsh said.
One concern about the bill surfaced during the committee meeting Wednesday. Sixteen Alabama counties have approved amendments allowing bingo. Some counties have electronic bingo machines. The state Supreme Court has ruled that those machines are illegal. The they but remain in use despite sporadic efforts to stop them.
The bill would put all bingo under control of the Gaming Commission. It would prohibit electronic bingo except at the five casinos (and the three now operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which are on tribal lands and not under state control). That would stop the electronic bingo at the White Hall Entertainment Center in Lowndes County. Sen. Malika Sanders Fortier, D-Selma, wrote a letter saying that’s unfair and that the county, one of the poorest in the state, has depended on the bingo for jobs and funding for about 20 years.
Macon and Greene counties also receive revenue from electronic bingo. But if Marsh’s bill is approved and ratified by voters, those counties would have new sources of funding from the casinos there.
Marsh also talked about a bill that is a companion to the gambling bill. It would create the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority to oversee the expansion and availability of high-speed broadband services. The gambling bill directs almost half of the 20% tax revenue from the casinos to broadband expansion until the total applied to that reaches $1 billion.
“We’re creating for the first time, serious money for the expansion of broadband,” Marsh said.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, gave Marsh’s bill a strong endorsement.
Albritton said an important benefit would be uniform regulation of gambling by the Alabama Gaming Commission that would regulate all gambling across the state.
“This gives us an opportunity for the state of Alabama to be able to take control of gaming in Alabama. Not just part of it, but all of it,” Albritton said.
Albritton, who is chairman of the Senate’s General Fund committee, urged senators to pass the bill because he said the state needs more money to apply to rural health care, prisons, and other programs.
“The General Fund has no resources to expand,” Albritton said. “This bill provides an infusion of money whereby we can deal with the matters that are afflicting us.”
Albritton mentioned the Gov. Kay Ivey administration’s plan to lease three new men’s prisons that is expected to cost about $3 billion over 30 years.
“We’ve got to build three billion-dollar prisons,” Albritton said. “We’ve got to do that now.”