By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The House of Representatives will take up a revamped gambling package this week as the Alabama Legislature winds down its final days of the 2021 regular session.
In April, the Senate passed a wide-ranging gambling plan that would institute a state lottery, allow for nine casinos statewide, all but one of which currently exists, and legalize sports betting. The plan has been awaiting action in the House of Representatives, where previous gambling legislation has struggled in recent years.
All of the gambling bills are set to be considered in committee today. However, instead of the Senate-passed versions of the bills, proposed substitute legislation that will revamp portions of the plan will be introduced, ADN has learned.
Alabama Daily News obtained a copy of the proposed substitute legislation proponents will swap out in committee and vote on Thursday when Senate Bill 319 comes to the floor. According to the draft, the revamped plan would increase the tax on casinos and sports betting from 20% to 23%, write the Alabama Gambling Regulatory Commission and its enforcement authority into the constitution and more strictly ban gambling interests from offering gifts or campaign contributions to public officials.
The plan would reorganize the wide-ranging proposal from four bills into three: one constitutional amendment that would go to voters next November, one bill enabling the lottery corporation and scholarship system and one codifying criminal offenses and the ban on political contributions.
One difference that stands out from the original proposal is the more straightforward verbiage. Instead of gaming, a less menacing term preferred by the industry, the new legislation calls it gambling, including in how it names the regulator commission. Instead of “covered locations” as the last plan referenced, the new language simply calls them “casinos.”
Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Smith’s Station, is quarterbacking the bill in House. He told Alabama Daily News that he and his colleagues have taken the issue seriously and worked to develop a final product that build off progress made in the Senate.
“There’s no perfect piece of legislation. But we are really trying to make sure that we give this our best effort to get it as close to perfect as possible so that, if it does pass, the citizens of Alabama have the opportunity next November to vote yes or no,” Blackshear said.
One point he is emphasizing to his colleagues who may not support gambling as public policy is how passing a strong package could better regulate and limit gambling in the state from its current form.
“We’ve got some good solid legislation that, No. 1, truly regulates gambling for the first time, that sees state revenue from gambling for the first time, and reduce the number of gambling locations. We calculated that there are currently 28 places where gambling goes on. This would take that number down to nine.”
The new plan also seeks to beef up the law enforcement provisions. Several House members who have backgrounds in law enforcement have been working strengthening the enforcement language in the gambling bill to include a specialized law enforcement division under the commission.
Rep. Proncey Roberts, a former Decatur Police Department, officer was among them.
“The (Senate-passed) bill left it to local law enforcement and or the sheriff to be the primary law enforcement entity,” Robertson said. “But this is a very specialized type of law enforcement. You need some expertise.
“… Gambling laws themselves are pretty complicated, then you have things like money laundering, racketeering and opportunities for organized crime to trickle in. You have to have (law enforcement) that has an understanding and background in that.”
Vote counts were elusive as ADN asked around about the likely outcome three days ahead of the floor vote. To pass, the constitutional amendment needs a three-fifths vote of those elected in the House. With two vacancies at the moment, the current number of members elected is 103, and three-fifths of that is 62.
One concern among proponents is the possibility of a “lottery only” amendment coming to the floor and possibly upsetting the apple cart. multiple members are considering offering such an amendment.
One is Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville.
“I’ve always supported the lottery,” said Greer, whose home county shares borders with Tennessee and Mississippi. “We get to see where our money is going, it’s going to other states.”
But casino gaming is different, he said. He’s afraid the new gambling revenues generated would come from Alabamians who have other needs for it. He argues that the Legislature could do a straight lottery bill, let it operate a few years, then come back to the gambling issue.
Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Montgomery, is also said to be preparing such an amendment.
Gov. Kay Ivey has opposed such efforts saying the state needs to address all its gambling issues at one time. In March, she told ADN in no uncertain terms she was against the “lottery only” route.
“The whole package brings so much good to the state,” she said. “And we’ve got gambling going on right now, but the people are not benefiting from it in any way. So I’m strongly in favor of the full package.”
Now, Ivey and others are working behind the scenes to see such amendments defeated. That could happen in multiple ways. First, there could be an up or down vote on whether to adopt a “lottery only” amendment or substitute which, given the widespread support for a lottery, might be hard to vote down. The argument could be made that members voted against the lottery, which they don’t want to deal with next election. The other way would be a motion to table the amendment, which sets aside the issue in a much more benign way. If proponents of the wide-ranging gambling bill can get to 54 votes on a tabling motion, that might be the ball game.
Asked if he had the votes, Blackshear said he’s taking it one step at a time.
“All these bill are set to be considered in committee Tuesday. So if they can get out of committee and get their second reading on Tuesday, that will put us in a position to have them considered on the House floor Thursday morning,” Blackshear said.
“We’re going to put all these ideas to the body, have some good wholesome debate about it and let the votes fall where they may.”