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Conservative groups call for halt on gambling legislation

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A coalition of conservative groups and faith leaders gathered at the State House Tuesday to voice their opposition to gambling legislation now moving in the House of Representatives.

Led by the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Birmingham, the group included the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Citizens Action Program, or ALCAP, Eagle Forum and the Alabama Baptist Convention. They’re opposed to House Bills 151 and 152, the gambling package sponsored by Rep. Chris Blackshear that would institute a state lottery, expand and regulate casino gambling and allow sports betting in Alabama.

Stephanie Smith, API president, said she takes issue with many parts of the plan, but her main concern is the potential for corruption and its impact on state policy.

“There is corruption literally written into this bill and to think that lawmakers would even consider opening up our state government to the corruptive forces gambling brings is offensive to those of us who care about this state’s future,” Smith said.

Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell said the plan was bad from business standpoint.

“We are against gambling. But even if we were for gambling, we’d be against this bill,” Parnell said. “This bill is awful from a business perspective. It sets up a bureaucracy that is immune from all accountability.

“This bill should have never been filed the way it was but it should never reach a vote of the body.”

Others from the faith community argued that expanded gambling would lead to more addiction and family hardship.

“We do not need to turn Alabama into ‘Bama Vegas’,” said Rick Lamb of the Alabama State Board of Baptist Churches.

And yet, steps away from the press conference, lawmakers were gathering for a public hearing on the gambling proposal, an early step to send it through the legislative process.

The sweeping proposal would authorize up to 11 casino sites with table games and slot machines, a state lottery, and allow sports betting at in-person locations and through online platforms.

The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee will vote on the legislation Wednesday afternoon, Committee Chairman Andy Whitt said. If approved, it could be up for a key vote on the floor of the Alabama House of Representatives as soon as Thursday.

If passed by the Legislature, the proposal would go before Alabama voters in the November general election, the first such public vote on gambling since a proposed lottery was rejected in 1999.

“It’s been a quarter of a century since the last time the citizens got to express their opinion on this matter,” Rep. Chris Blackshear, the sponsor of the bill, told the committee during a public hearing Tuesday.

Preston Roberts, a lobbyist for the Alabama Farmers Federation, told the committee during a Tuesday hearing that the proposal does not do enough to regulate gambling.

“We have more than 150 pages of painstaking detail about how to protect gambling businesses and virtually nothing to protect Alabamians,” Roberts said.

Don Siegelman, who was the last Alabama governor to obtain a statewide vote on a lottery, said he believes lawmakers should separate the casino and lottery proposals. Siegelman’s 1999 proposal would have created a lottery to fund college scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs.

State Treasurer Young Boozer said Alabama is “late to the game” on legalizing gambling, noting that 45 states have lotteries and most also have some sort of casino gambling.

“Gaming will work in Alabama and it will be worth it,” Boozer told the committee.

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 scholarships for students attending two-year and technical colleges, it does not guarantee a funding level.

Robbie McGhee, vice-chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Tribal Council, told the committee that the tribe can’t support the legislation in its current form. McGhee wrote in prepared remarks for the committee that it “stymies our ability to operate competitive gaming enterprises.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 



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