Alabama is one step closer towards putting the issue of gambling before voters for the first time in over 20 years as a lottery and casino bill has cleared the first hurdle in the state’s Legislature.
The Miami Herald has reported that the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee unanimously voted to advance the legislation to the full Alabama Senate. Sponsor Senator Del Marsh said he expects the Senate will discuss the bill on Thursday, but he will not seek a vote until lawmakers come back from a planned week long break.
The bill proposes a state lottery and five casinos offering table games, sports betting and slot machines for Alabama. The casinos would be located at four existing dog tracks with a fifth site in the north part of the state that would be run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the state’s only federally recognised Native American tribe.
The proposal also would encourage the governor to hold talks with the Poarch Band for a compact involving its three other sites which currently have electronic bingo machines.
For the proposal to pass into law, it would have to be approved by a three-fifths majority of each chamber of the Alabama Legislature and then a majority of voters in a statewide vote. The bill will need 21 yes votes to clear the Alabama Senate.
Alabamians last voted on gambling in 1999 when they defeated a lottery proposed by then-Governor Don Siegelman.
Gambling bills put forward since then have fallen short due to a mix of conservative opposition to gambling as a revenue source and disagreements over who could offer casino games or electronic bingo machines, which resemble slot machines.
Senator Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said he was undecided on the bill because of the casino portion. He thinks most voters would support a lottery but is uncertain about allowing casinos in the state.
Waggoner said: “I’ve got to think about casinos a long time, but I think the lottery would be an easy sale to the Legislature and to the public. There is going to be a debate on opening up Alabama to casinos.”
According to the Legislative Services Agency, the lottery is estimated to generate $194-$279m annually for college scholarships awarded on a mix of need, merit and workforce needs in the state. Meanwhile, the casinos are estimated to generate $260-$393m annually from the 20% tax on gaming revenues as authorised by the amendment.
Marsh is proposing to use casino revenue to help expand broadband access in the state and to fund mental and rural health services.
He also added the location the tribe would operate would be located in either Jackson or DeKalb counties. The other four would be at VictoryLand dog track in Macon County, Greenetrack in Green County, the racecourse in Birmingham and the racecourse in Mobile, which is owned by the Poarch Band.
Sharon Wheeler, a lobbyist representing the Whitehall Entertainment Center, a smaller electronic bingo operator in Lowndes County, believes it’s unfair to not include the smaller site that provides jobs in one of the most impoverished areas of Alabama while allowing cities and the north part of the state to have casinos and the jobs they create.
Senator Malika Sanders Fortier, who represents the area, sent a letter to the committee asking her colleagues to include the site.
The bill was approved by the committee with little discussion, but Marsh expects lawmakers will discuss the bill during the break.