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Casino, lottery and sports betting plan advances, set for House vote today

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A gambling proposal to authorize a lottery, sports betting, and multiple casinos across Alabama was swiftly advanced by a legislative committee on Wednesday.

The Alabama House Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved the two-bill package, putting the proposal in line for a key vote Thursday in the state House of Representatives. If approved by the state Legislature, the proposal would go before Alabama voters in the November general election, the first public vote on gambling since a proposed lottery was rejected in 1999.

“In my opinion, this is the best piece of legislation put forward in a very long time to give the people the right to vote on if this is something they want in Alabama,” bill sponsor Rep. Chris Blackshear said after the committee vote.

The sweeping proposal would authorize up to 10 casino sites — including the three tribal sites operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians — with table games and slot machines, a state lottery, and allow sports betting at in-person locations and through online platforms. Republican Rep. Andy Whitt, who helped develop the proposal, said the bills will be voted on in the House Thursday.

Republican legislative leaders have named the bills as a priority for the session, and they have been on the legislative fast track. The first floor vote on the bills could come one week after they were introduced last Thursday. The committee, which held a public hearing Tuesday, approved the bills after about 30 minutes of debate.

Republican Rep. Allen Treadaway, of Morris, cast the only audible no vote in the House committee. Treadaway, a retired assistant police chief in Birmingham, said he is concerned about enforcement and if the legislation favors certain operators to win casino licenses instead of using a true bid process.

“The state stands to have a windfall here if it’s done right,” Treadaway said. “I can’t get past the fact that people will be rewarded who have continued to operate illegally for years to make millions. Open it up. Open bid.”

The legislation says a new Alabama Gaming Commission would issue licenses for up to seven other casinos in the state, reserving six for Jefferson, Greene, Macon, Mobile, Lowndes and Houston counties. The state has tried to shut down electronic gambling operations at dog tracks and other locations in most of those counties. A tenth site, contingent upon a negotiated compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, would give the tribe a license to open a casino — in addition to the three existing tribal sites — on non-tribal land in the northeast corner of the state near the Georgia state line.

The legislation says the licenses will be put out for bid and includes a list of things that the commission can consider, including the applicant’s existing investment.

For the last 25 years, gambling legislation has stalled under a mix of opposition to legalized gambling and a turf war over who could get casino licenses. Lottery proposals since 1999 have become politically intertwined with the issue of whether to allow casinos.

The proposed constitutional amendment will need 63 votes to win approval in the 105-member Alabama House of Representatives.

Republican Rep. Steve Clouse, who supports the bill, said he expects the vote to be “very close.”

Clouse said many Alabamians cross state lines to buy lottery tickets, sales the state doesn’t benefit from.

“We’re not making anything on the lottery, and we’re surrounded by lotteries now,” Clouse said.

The Legislative Services Agency estimated that taxes on the three forms of gambling would generate up to $912 million in revenue annually. That revenue would largely be steered to two new funds for lawmakers to decide how to use. While the legislation names uses, such as using lottery money for scholarships to two-year and technical colleges, it does not guarantee a funding level.

Don Siegelman, the last Alabama governor to obtain a statewide vote on a lottery, said he would not support the bill in its current form. Siegelman’s 1999 proposal, which was rejected by voters, would have created a lottery to fund college scholarships and prekindergarten programs.

“The proposed legislation and (constitutional amendment) allows the legislature to spend the money however they want,” Siegelman said. “This legislation totally turns its back on our children and the parents who need early learning and free college opportunities for their children.”

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