MONTGOMERY — A conference committee formed to negotiate a gambling legislative package between the House and Senate will begin meeting next week.

The Senate appointed State Sens. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) and Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) to the conference committee on Tuesday. They will join State Reps. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City), Andy Whitt (R-Madison) and Sam Jones (D-Mobile) on the committee.

Fewer Senators voted in favor of going to a conference committee on Tuesday than in March when they passed their versions of the gambling constitutional amendment and enabling legislation. 

"In the Senate, we lost five votes. When we passed it, we passed it with 22 votes and then when we had the question for the conference, we had 19 votes (and) two of those were new. We lost five votes that we've got to figure out why we lost those and how do we regain them. We're going in the wrong direction in that way," Albritton told reporters on Thursday. "That's one thing I know. As far as the whac-a-mole game, once you move one thing you lose this and such, the window of opportunity of what each side wants and by that I mean House and Senate is very, very small... There's lots of opportunities to find a path but to get to that path we've got to be able to have votes. Right now, I don't see 63 in the House nor do I see 21 in the Senate on anything and any way you try to change things out."

The conference committee is planning a public meeting for next week, according to Albritton.

"It's very tenuous. We've never been this close before and yet we've never been so far away either as far as the number of votes required. It's a challenge. We plan on having a meeting sometime next week," Albritton said. "The House portion of the conference committee is in charge of that. I believe they'll be making an announcement of when that meeting will occur. It will be a public meeting from what I understand."

Charles Murry, a spokesman for House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) told 1819 News that a date for the meeting hadn't been set yet.

State Sen. David Sessions (R-Grand Bay), who voted for the Senate's proposal in March and against going to a conference committee on Tuesday, told 1819 News. "I felt like the Senate bill was a decent bill."

"It put the controls in to get rid of the illegal stuff and it had the lottery vote and then the compact. You know, I've never been a really big supporter of gambling. I don't want to see a big, full-blown expansion but we'll see what the conference committee comes out with," Sessions said. "I don't know if it will be significant changes or if it will just be minor changes. We'll see. I think they realize significant changes really damage the opportunity for anything to pass."

The Senate on Tuesday voted by a 19-14 margin to send the constitutional amendment gambling legislation to a conference committee. The enabling legislation passed by a 21-11 margin.

Singleton said he was optimistic about an agreement on gambling coming together that could pass the House and Senate.

"I feel real good about what could come out, and I think there's some things that could be worked out," Singleton said. I think some people weren't on the floor. When you look at that, I think some people just didn't want to take that vote. I have confidence in the package that will come out: those 19 will grow, and we'll get the number that we need. I have confidence in that." 

Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey, told 1819 News, "As the governor has said, she believes the people of Alabama should have their say on the issue of gaming too."

"She is hopeful the House and Senate can continue working together to get this done," Maiola said.

In its original form, House Bill 151 (HB151) would repeal all constitutional amendments allowing gambling in certain parts of the state and remove the state's constitutional gambling prohibition. The other, House Bill 152 (HB152), initially authorized a series of provisions legalizing casino gaming in specific locations, a statewide lottery, and online sports betting. 

The House passed both bills in February with a comfortable margin.

After weeks of deliberation, the Senate passed both bills on March 8, this time with amendments, significantly changing the original legislation.

The substitute amendments under the Senate plan include a statewide lottery and a requirement that the governor negotiate a gambling compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI). Sports betting, online gambling or other non-PCI new casinos aren't included in the Senate's amendment like the House's version. The constitutional amendment would be voted on in the Senate plan on September 10 in a special election.

The Senate's revised constitutional amendment also authorizes pari-mutuel wagering, including historical horse racing at the racetracks in Greene, Jefferson, Macon, and Mobile Counties and an additional location in Greene County, at the existing bingo halls in Houston County, and in the town of White Hall in Lowndes County.

Blackshear said on the House floor a few weeks ago that he did not concur with the Senate's changes because the lottery income was separated between three sources instead of all going to the Education Trust Fund (ETF).

"Also, I think that we're leaving approximately $400-500 million annually on the table; we need to figure out how we can grab some of that," Blackshear explained. "And if you look at a licensing perspective, you're leaving about a billion-and-a-half dollars on the floor as well."

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