By Kyle Whitmire, 2023 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary

Most Alabamians just want to play the lottery without driving to the state line, but nothing is ever that simple in Montgomery.(Staten Island Advance/Anthony DePrimo) Staff-ShotStaff-Shot

On Tuesday, the Alabama Legislature came as close as it ever has to passing a comprehensive gambling bill, which is to say, it didn’t and I again have to explain why Alabama doesn’t have a lottery.

Here goes …

When it comes to gambling, most Alabamians want a lottery. When the jackpot reaches $1 billion, they’d like a Powerball ticket without having to drive to the state line to buy one.

And if the money goes to education, that’s great, too.

Seems like a simple ask, right?


You see, that’s what Alabamians want, but lawmakers in Montgomery don’t represent Alabamians. They represent special interest groups.

And there are a lot of competing interests when it comes to gambling.

The easy — but wrong — assumption is that Alabama doesn’t have a lottery because our state is run by religious prudes, but that’s not the case here. There are some of those in the state house and they do play an important role.

But it’s the gambling interests that keep Alabamians from being able to gamble.

This bears some explanation.

First, the parties.

The Milton McGregor Heirs

They control two “dog tracks” where there’s no real dog racing anymore — the Birmingham Racecourse and Victoryland.  These are basically casinos that use local parimutuel gambling laws to jerry-rig things that look like slot machines even though their lawyers will insist they are by no means slot machines, and they sometimes offer “games of skill” that you can literally play with your eyes closed and not affect your odds of winning. These facilities were developed by a vending machine salesman-turned-larger-than-life gambling magnate Milton McGregor, who frequently feted lawmakers at his dog-track-but-not-dog-track casinos and was a rumored master of the Reverse-Pickpocket, which is something like the Tooth Fairy but for grownups.

He died, though, and now his son-in-law controls what’s left of his empire.


GreeneTrack is another similar facility, though not controlled by the McGregor family. At some point, Paul Bryant Jr. may have had some sort of interest here but doesn’t anymore, maybe … that’s not quite clear. Regardless, GreeneTrack is the other dog-track-but-not-a-dog-track casino located in Greene County, which — like Victoryland — is located in the Black Belt, a region called that, not because of its majority-Black population, but because of its black soil, which is due to krill deposits left over from the Cretaceous Period developing into an underlying chalk bed that resulted in it being good for two things — growing cotton and storing toxic waste — which, when combined with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and a subsequent century of Jim Crow white supremacy, resulted in a lot of Black people living there and having to deal with environmental racism and old-fashioned-racism racism at the same time, which is to say most Alabama lawmakers don’t give a rip for GreeneTrack except if maybe Paul Bryant Jr. still has something to do with it, in which case, they’d rather be safe than sorry and Roll Tide.

Double-wide casinos

GreeneTrack and Victoryland have operated in the legal margins, regularly being threatened by attorneys general and raided by state police, except for that time a Greene County sheriff vaguely warned that if state troopers busted up the place there might be some sort of stand-your-ground-type situation but totally wasn’t threatening armed conflict between local and state police forces … right?

Anyway, if the dog-tracks-that-aren’t-dog-tracks operate in the margins, there is a whole other group of gambling facilities that live on the other side of the page, in the everything’s-legal-until-somebody-stops-us category of illicit gambling. In some counties, these facilities have signage by the highway, but you could very well have one in your neighborhood and not even know it.

The odds in such facilities are play-at-your-own-risk but when local law enforcement officials are making coded threats against other cops, how much worse could it get?

Poarch Band of Creek Indians (Alabama Indians)

When white people started stealing land in Alabama, most indigenous people were either killed or forced to leave, including many Creek Indians in the First Creek War, but those who didn’t fight back and some who fought with Andrew Jackson (Side note: In fourth grade, I built a nifty diorama of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and thought it was awesome until I later learned what actually happened there and … oh God …) were allowed to stay and were “given” land that had already belonged to them on which to live for a short while under the Treaty of Cusseta, which white land-grabbers immediately ignored, and then the indigenous people fought back again (Second Creek War) with similar dismal results, and under another treaty had most of what they had left stolen from them, leaving but a handful of Creek families behind, many of whom had intermarried with white people. That handful of Creek families is who call themselves the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, or PCI for short. If you watch network television in Alabama, you might have seen their commercials.

Because of interlocking federal and state laws, they can have two casinos and a dog-track-not-a-dog-track in Alabama but are eager to expand.

Non-Alabama Indians

Indian gambling interests from other states (looking at you Mississippi) that don’t want competition from a neighboring state and have been known to meddle in Alabama politics to keep it that way. See related: Jack Abramoff.

Online Sports Betting

These are sites like Fan Duel and such, which I understand about as well as TikTok, which is to say I know they exist and are popular. They put the casino in your iPhone. Gambling from your sofa. It’s sad but probably the future.

Alabama Gambling Law

Those are the parties, and if you’re getting motion sickness already, we haven’t even touched on the law.

Alabama gambling laws are like my Christmas lights when I take them out of the attic — a tangled knot of uncountable strands that can’t be teased apart without creating a fire hazard.

There are local laws that apply to one or two counties but not all 67, local constitutional amendments that gambling interests and state law enforcement disagree over the meaning of and nobody’s sure how they even got passed, the longest-in-the-nation (not to mention racist) 1901 Alabama Constitution, federal law, tribal law and potentially a compact (yes, a compact) between the governor and the PCI, because why not?

If you’ve stuck with me this long and you’re still thinking “but I just want a lottery,” first, thank you, and second, you can’t legalize a lottery without affecting these other gambling laws.

Like a Rubik’s Cube, if you fiddle with one side you can mess up another side, and I know I’m mixing my gambling law metaphors but one Christmas I did get a Rubik’s Cube, so I’m sticking with it.

And then we bring into the mix …. Alabama lawmakers.

Each of these special interest groups has a team of favored lawmakers at their beck and call, with a few free agents floating in between, so for any gambling bill to get through the legislature, it must satisfy everybody.

If a gambling bill upsets just one of these special interest groups, that group’s lawmakers can team up with the religious prudes and kill it.

If a gambling bill slips through the House, the Senate can kill it, and vice versa.

All of which is to say, a gambling bill getting through the Alabama Legislature is about as likely as winning the lottery — if only we had one.