By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama legislative committee swiftly advanced lottery and casino legislation on Wednesday, acting after a public hearing dominated by opponents who said the proposal would hand the licenses to a few powerful operators.
The Senate Tourism Committee voted for the proposed constitutional amendment authorizing a state lottery, sports betting, eight full casinos with slots and table games and two smaller gambling sites that could have up to 300 slot machines each. It now moves to the Senate floor.
Republican Sen. Greg Albritton, the sponsor of the proposal, told the committee it was time for the state to address the issue of gambling. He argued his bill would give Alabamians a much-wanted state lottery and “grab control” of gambling by allowing a limited number of casino sites.
“The people have been ready for this vote for years,” Albritton said of the proposal which would go to a statewide vote in November if approved by lawmakers.
Opponents argued that the bill would essentially hand the licenses to a few select operators. The casinos would be located at existing state dog tracks and sites owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
“We shouldn’t be, as a Legislature, in the posture of picking winners and losers,” Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, a Democrat from Hayneville told the committee. He said it would close an existing facility in his county by limiting the number of machines.
Those speaking against the bill in the public hearing included both longtime opponents of legalized gambling and representatives of existing electronic bingo operations that would likely be shuttered under the proposal.
Casinos would be located at the site of four existing dog tracks in Greene, Jefferson, Macon, and Mobile counties. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians would have a casino at each of the three tribal sites as well as a new location located in either DeKalb County or Jackson County.
The licenses at the track locations would be competitively bid although the track owners would have the opportunity to come in and make a final bid for the license. It would authorize two smaller satellite operations in Houston and Lowndes counties with up to 300 slot machines each.
“The competitive bid process that it mentions in this piece of legislation is actually more of a rigged bid process because the current owner is given the opportunity to offer one dollar over the winning bid to secure the license at the end of the day,” Heather Coleman Davis, a lobbyist representing another Greene County operation, told the committee.
The proposal would require a change to the Alabama Constitution. It must be approved by three-fifths of lawmakers, and then a majority of state voters to take effect. The gambling proposal, along with a companion bill to create a state gaming commission and operating rules, now goes to the Alabama Senate where similar legislation was approved last year.
Tourism Committee Chairman Del Marsh urged the House of Representatives to take up the proposal if it is approved by the Senate. He said it is the top issue he is asked about when he goes home to his Anniston district.
“I think the people of this state want to have something to vote on and make a decision on,” Marsh said.
Alabama is just one of five states — along with Nevada, Utah, Alaska and Hawaii — without a state lottery. State voters in 1999 rejected a lottery proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman.
Since then, efforts to legalize casinos or create a state lottery have failed under a fatal mix of conservative opposition to legalized gambling and turf wars over who could operate lucrative electronic gambling machines.
Albritton has previously acknowledged that it would be difficult to pass legislation that just put the licenses out for bid. The existing facilities carry political clout and support from local legislators who don’t want to see local jobs disappear.