MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate passed a gambling constitutional amendment after more than seven hours of debate on Thursday.

The constitutional amendment, HB 151, passed with one vote to spare over the necessary 21-vote threshold by a margin of 22-11. Accompanying enabling legislation, HB 152 passed by the same margin. State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) carried both bills in the Senate.

The substitute amendments under the amended 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 includes authorizing pari-mutuel wagering, including historical horse racing at the racetracks in Greene, Jefferson, Macon, Mobile, an additional location in Greene County, at the existing bingo halls in Houston County, and the town of White Hall in Lowndes County.

“Illegal gaming is happening all across Alabama. The Alabama Senate voted today to close the over a thousand illegal casino facilities across our state that plague our communities," State Senate President Pro-Tem Greg Reed (R-Jasper) said in a statement after the bills passed the senate. "We also voted to hold criminals associated with illegal gaming accountable with increased criminal penalties. Criminals and their associates are out of business in Alabama. The Senate also voted today to give Alabama citizens the ability to vote for a statewide paper lottery. Our government was founded on the principle that it is by the people and for the people. Nothing is more foundational to our country than giving people the ability to vote at the ballot box, and I trust the will of the people of Alabama."

The amendment would also require the Legislature to establish a law enforcement division within the Alabama Gambling Commission to police lottery games and other gambling activities and eliminate unlawful gambling activities. It would also repeal all local bingo amendments and prohibit the enactment of any future local amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 2022, providing for gambling activities.

“Legislation passed today will help end illegal gambling that lacks any form of regulation in Alabama. There is a huge need to shut down illegal casinos that have popped up all across the state in our communities. The legislation led by Senate Republicans will put these bad actors out of business. It is also clear that Alabamians have the right to vote if they want a state paper lottery. Republicans believe in limited government, and I believe Alabamians have the right and wisdom to decide this issue,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro) said.

The bill will now head back to the House for its consideration since it differs from the amendment they passed in February. Both the House and Senate are taking a spring break next week and won’t be meeting.

“As you know, the House and Senate adjourned for constituent work week and will return the 19th. We plan to use that time to continue reviewing the legislation,” Charles Murry, a spokesman for House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville), told 1819 News on Thursday night.

State Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) told 1819 News the pari-mutuel gaming portion was the biggest reason for 11 Republicans voting against the legislation.

“It was the expansion of that into other counties beyond those that currently have pari-mutuel in their existing law. The ones that are existing are Mobile, Greene, Jefferson, and Macon,” Givhan said on Thursday. “There was a draft last week that I felt I could support that provided Alabamians an opportunity to vote on a lottery, which is overwhelmingly what they want, coupled with a de facto (albeit questionable in regards to legality) “status quo” gambling in four counties. As negotiations continued, the draft moved beyond what I and several other Senators could support. Now, it’ll be up to the House being able to accept this. It’s a relatively fragile vote number there because if they start trying to push I think they’re going to lose support. Of course, assuming that works out, it goes out for a vote.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) told reporters, “I feel real good about where we are and we’ll work with the House and come up with something that everybody will like.”

“When you look at how (historical racing machines) look or you stand them right beside a slot machine they look just like a slot machine. There’s a slight difference in how they play. However, I think the players will enjoy it. They will have something here in the state of Alabama (and) also the state lottery so I feel good about where we are. I really do,” Singleton said.

Senate Democrats still prefer the House plan over the Senate’s plan because the House plan offers other gambling interests besides PCI a path towards possibly offering Class III gaming such as roulette, blackjack, and craps if the constitutional amendment is put on the ballot and approved by voters.

“The House passed a comprehensive bill that dealt with casinos so we just want to be able to sit down with them and I think that we can get to a point to where we can have something viable to where the state can win and also the state of Alabama will have something they can vote on,” Singleton said.

If passed by the Legislature and approved by voters, the constitutional amendment states the governor shall negotiate and may execute a Tribal-State compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, as contemplated under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to provide for any and all activities allowable under that act; provided, the governor may not grant authority for any activity to be conducted outside of lands held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the Poarch Band Of Creek Indians as of February 6 2024. The February 6 language was added to the bill on Thursday through an amendment by State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine). Current PCI casinos are located at Atmore, Montgomery, and Wetumpka.

“It is good that the Senate pushed through today’s discussions and kept the gaming legislation moving forward. Like everyone else in Alabama, we will continue watching these legislative actions. We trust that our lawmakers will keep moving this issue forward and give Alabamians a chance to vote on what they want gaming to look like in the state,” Kristin Hellmich, director of external communications for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, told 1819 News on Thursday.

Eric Johnston, president and general counsel of the conservative Southeast Law Institute in Birmingham, told 1819 News, “In general, we are disappointed that the Senate passed the CA. That resulted in the enabling legislation to pass closely thereafter with little change.” 

“There are many provisions with which we have concern. The lack of checks and balances for the Gambling Commission leaves it ripe for corruption. The language of the CA attempts to apparently limit the gambling, but our concern is that the language ultimately will permit unwanted gambling expansion far beyond what the sponsors represent. Exactly how that will work, will depend on our review of the enrolled bill. We are hopeful that when these bills are returned to the House, that chamber will find them unacceptable and end this charade. The wording of these gambling bills are written to deceive and leave room for an interpretation that will allow gambling expansion,” Johnston said.

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