State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) finally unveiled his long-awaited gambling bill. This bill is very similar to a bill that Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) carried last year. The Marsh bill passed the Senate but died in the Alabama House of Representatives without a vote despite having the full support of the Republican governor and House leadership.
The Albritton and Marsh gaming bills are very loosely based on the findings of the 2020 Governor’s Task Force on Gaming headed by former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange.
The task force’s report claimed that the state could generate an additional $600 million in revenues by legalizing casino gambling at the state’s dog tracks, a state lottery, a sportsbook, and negotiating a compact with the Poarch Creek Band of Indians (PCI) which operates electronic slot machines (they call electronic bingo) at facilities in Wetumpka and Atmore under the 1987 Indian Gaming Act and licensed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Marsh later agreed to allow a casino at the old Country Crossings facility near Dothan in order to get Sen. Donnie Chesteen’s (R-Dothan) vote. At one point the bill included legalizing the Whitehall Entertainment facility in Lowndes County at the insistence of Sen. Malika Sanders-Fornier (D-Selma). The Lowndes County facility was dropped from the plan that finally passed out of the Senate when Sanders-Fortier’s poor health prevented her from attending Senate sessions in person. The Marsh plan also included a new casino in North Alabama in either Jackson or Dekalb County. The PCI would have gotten that new site in exchange for negotiating the compact.
Albritton’s plan includes a casino at the Winn family-controlled Greenetrack facility in Greene County, casinos at the Birmingham Race Course in Jefferson County and VictoryLand at Shorter in Macon County (both owned by the heirs of Milton McGregor), and the Mobile County Greyhound Racing Facility, which is owned by PCI. The PCI would get their casino in north Alabama in exchange for negotiating the compact, which could, in theory, allow table games at their existing facilities. The Lowndes and Houston County facilities would be legalized as satellite casinos with a limited number of electronic gambling machines. There would also be sports betting in this package.
The Alabama Education Lottery and Gambling Commission would be the new bureaucracy tasked with licensing the casinos and organizing the lottery.
The Governor’s Gambling Task Force estimated that the revenues from a lottery were between $160 million and $200 million. Most of that money would go to workforce development related scholarships. The bulk of the money, an estimated $400 million, would come from taxation on the casinos and would go to broadband, mental health, the prison maintenance fund, local governments, and other purposes. The sportsbook would bring in an estimated $25 million or so into state coffers.
Opposition to the Albritton plan will come from four sources:
Fiscal conservatives who object to growing the size and scope of Alabama government when both the general fund and education budgets are at record revenues, the state is receiving billions in funds from the Build Back Better Infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan Act, and medical marijuana taxes should start coming in early in the 2023 fiscal year.
Free-market conservatives, who have no moral qualms with gambling or with growing state government, but who do strongly oppose the state picking winners and losers by deciding which facility gets the casino license and which does not, instead of opening it up to true competition including companies not currently operating in Alabama.
Gambling facilities that were not parties to this grand deal. There are at least 3 casinos operating quasi-legally in Greene County alone that would be made outlaws by this legislation and at least that many in Jefferson County – not to mention dozens of facilities operating in the shadows in the backrooms of restaurants and convenience stores. The prospects of being shut down by a powerful state gaming commission led to a flurry of lobbying against the gambling bill last year. The more gambling establishments that are allowed to operate, the lower the margins for each facility as people addicted to gambling are a limited resource.
In 2021, part of the problem that gambling ran into was that medical marijuana, which had far less lobbying dollars but much larger and better-organized grassroots support than gambling has, was also on the agenda. The Senate passed both Marsh’s bill and Sen. Tim Melson’s (R-Florence) SB46 – the medical marijuana bill.
The House soon got bogged down with committees rewriting both bills. While the more disciplined medical marijuana advocates quickly coalesced behind their compromise bill that leadership sent through both the House Judiciary and Health Committees, the gambling proponents were bitterly divided over how many casinos would be allowed and what would happen to gambling operations not given the state legislature’s blessing. The state government committee wrote a substitute to the Marsh bill and then had to write a substitute to their own substitute. With just three legislative days left in the 2021 session, it was obvious to most observers that passing both bills through the House and getting the Senate to concur was unlikely.
Ultimately Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) opted to go for SB46 to give gambling backers more time to negotiate an agreement on the fate of the Marsh bill. The medical marijuana bill passed and is now law, but that debate cost 10 hours of floor debate. When House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) demanded that gambling fund the expansion of Medicaid, Republican support for the legislation evaporated and the Marsh bill was never debated on the floor of the House, much less put to a vote. There was a poorly executed attempt by Republicans to force a vote on a simple lottery bill that also failed without being put to a vote.
Tuesday will be day 19 of the 2022 Alabama Regular Legislative session and Albritton’s SB294 faces a very compressed time period to go through the process and become law in just twelve legislative days.
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