A sweeping measure that would allow voters to decide whether to create a lottery and bring legal casino-style gambling to Alabama won House committee approval Tuesday, setting up a major decision for the chamber in the last days of the session.
But the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee’s approval of the amendment, SB 319, came after an hourlong public hearing dominated by opponents of the measure, including a former Alabama governor, who raised concerns about the bill’s structure and its impact on excluded facilities in Greene and Lowndes counties.
“You’re putting us in a hole, you’re burying us, and I think that is not fair,” said Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville, whose district includes Lowndes County.
The amendment is sponsored by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville but is a resurrected version of a sweeping lottery and gambling package sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, that the Senate narrowly rejected in March.
The amendment would create a state lottery, with proceeds going to education, and allow casino-like gambling at VictoryLand in Macon County; GreeneTrack in Greene County; the Birmingham Race Course in Birmingham; the Mobile Greyhound Park in Mobile; The Crossing at Big Creek, outside Dothan in Houston County, and a site in Jackson or DeKalb County, intended for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a federally-recognized tribe.
Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, who is handling the bill in the House, said there were “three facts” about Alabama gambling that everyone could agree on.
“One is gambling exists in the state of Alabama today,” he said. “That’s a fact. Two, it’s mostly unregulated, especially unregulated at state level. Three, the state sees no revenue from the gambling in the state.”
An Alabama Gaming Commission, created to regulate gambling in Alabama, would decide the fate of smaller operators, like White Hall Resort and Entertainment in Lowndes County and smaller gambling operated in Greene County.
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McClendon’s bill also directs the governor to pursue a gaming compact with the Poarch Band, who operate casinos on tribal land in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka.
A fiscal note with the bill estimates lottery revenues ranging from $194 million to $274 million a year. The funds would go to a Lottery Trust Fund, with money going to a postsecondary scholarship program. The specifics of the program are not spelled out, but the bill requires the program to have a debt forgiveness components for college students pursuing “in-demand” occupations and who work in the state for a specific period of time.
Gaming and sports betting would be taxed at 20% a year, with the potential to raise the tax by 2% every five years, up to a maximum of 30%. The Legislative Services Agency estimates the tax would generate $269 to $403 million a year.
Money would be split between information technology (with the first $750 million going to broadband); rural health care, and mental health services.
The bill drew opposition from former Sen. Phil Williams with the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative organization, who said it represented unwarranted government intrusion.
“It has the government picking winners and losers, he said. “It literally takes the names of businesses and embeds them in our Constitution.”
Gambling bills in the past have foundered amid disputes between the Poarch Band and the owners of dog tracks like VictoryLand over games offered and the governance of the facilities. Those fights have also sunk lottery bills. With Republicans divided over gambling, lottery advocates have needed Democratic votes. Democrats have been reluctant to give those without guarantees for the dog tracks, major employers in their districts.
But several Democrats at the public hearing expressed wariness about the bill. Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham, who abstained from the vote, said she wanted stronger language on enforcement and inclusion of Black Alabamians in ownership groups.
The most sustained objections came from representatives of Greene County, which has several bingo parlors besides GreeneTrack which fund local governments there. Former Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., speaking on behalf of the operators, said their exclusion would cripple the county.
“They are forced to oppose the aspect of the bill in SB 319 that pretty much gives them a death sentence after two years of passage,” he said. “Greene County’s whole economic structure is threatened under this proposal.”
Charlie McAlpine, the mayor of Forkville, a town in Greene County, said the bingo revenues give his town the ability to draw down federal grants that pay for services like recreation and law enforcement.
“There are no substitutes in Greene County for the facilities we have,” he said. “It’s unique. I’ve worked on development all over this world and I have never seen a situation like we have in Greene County.”
Lowndes County officials like Lawrence also wanted White Hall included in the bill, saying it was critical to their operations.
“Stop putting the dirt on top of Lowndes County,” said Gordonville Mayor Orbuty Ozier. “Peel away the dirt. Give us the opportunity to continue to grow.”
If approved by the Legislature, the amendment would go to voters in the November 2022 election.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or email@example.com.
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