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Early gambling debate mired in casino location concerns

By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama state senators on Thursday raised concerns about five proposed casino locations — with some wanting additional gambling locations — as lawmakers began debate on a bill to allow a lottery and casinos in the state.

The Alabama Senate began debate on the bill Thursday but sponsor Sen. Del Marsh said he will not seek a vote until lawmakers return from next week’s legislative break. Senators debated the bill for about an hour before adjourning. Marsh said he plans to spend the next week working on the legislation.

Some lawmakers said they are concerned their districts were not included in five casino locations spelled out in the bill.

“Southeast Alabama was left out, the Dothan area. I’ve had a lot of calls wanting to to know why Dothan was left out,” Republican Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, said.

The area had a facility that offered electronic bingo games, which resemble slot machines, but state law enforcement pushed to shut it down. Marsh’s bill would shut down electronic bingo sites, although card and paper games could continue.

“You are not alone,” Marsh replied to Chesteen. “I’ve had at least four others in this chamber come to me with the same situation.

Marsh said that he was looking at adding up to two additional sites, but cautioned that he did not think voters would approve a gambling bill that allowed a large number of casinos.

The bill proposes establishing a state lottery as well as five casinos offering table games, sports betting and slot machines. The casinos would be located at four existing dog tracks plus a fifth site in north Alabama that would be run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the state’s only federally recognized Native American tribe. The proposal also would encourage the governor to negotiate with the Poarch Band for a compact involving their three other sites which currently have electronic bingo machines.

The proposal 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 Legislative Services Agency estimated the lottery would generate $194-$279 million annually for college scholarships awarded on a mix of need, merit and workforce needs in the state. The agency estimated the casinos would generate $260-$393 million annually from the 20% tax on gaming revenues as authorized by this amendment.

Marsh wants to use casino revenue to help expand broadband access in the state as well as to fund mental and rural health services.

Alabama is one of just five states without a state lottery.

Alabamians last voted on gambling in 1999 when they defeated a lottery proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman. Gambling bills introduced since then have fallen short under a mix of conservative opposition to gambling as a revenue source and a turf war over which entities could offer casino games or electronic bingo machines.

Marsh said the location the tribe would operate would be 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.

Some lawmakers have expressed concern about allowing any casinos in the state.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said Wednesday that he believes most voters support a lottery, but he was uncertain about allowing casinos in the state.

“I’ve got to think about casinos a long time, but I think lottery would be an easy sale to the Legislature and to the public. There is going to be debate on opening up Alabama to casinos,” Waggoner said.

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