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Lottery, casino bill passes key vote in Alabama House

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Lottery and casino legislation passed a key test Thursday in the Alabama Legislature as the House of Representatives approved a sweeping gambling proposal with an aim to get the measure before voters in November.

The House of Representatives approved the proposed constitutional amendment to allow up to 10 casino sites with table games and slot machines, a state lottery, and to allow sports betting at in-person locations and through online platforms. It would also authorize the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

The measure passed on a 70-32 vote, exceeding the needed 63 yes votes in the House for a proposed change to the Alabama Constitution. It now moves to the Alabama Senate.

If it wins final approval in the Statehouse, the proposal will go before Alabama voters in the November general election, the first public vote on gambling since a proposed lottery was rejected in 1999.

“The people want a chance to vote. If they vote for it, good. If they vote against it, that’s their choice. But at least they’ve got a voice,” House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter said after the vote.

Representatives also voted 67-31 to approve the 139-page enabling legislation that would set out rules for where casinos could be located, how licenses would be issued and state oversight of gambling. That bill also moves to the Alabama Senate.

Several lawmakers in both parties said they see Alabamians regularly cross state lines to buy lottery tickets or visit casinos, but that Alabama isn’t reaping the tax benefits of those sales. Other supporters argued it is time to let voters decide.

“There are people who are sitting in this room who take their money and go five minutes across state lines and send their money to Georgia, to Tennessee to Florida, on the lottery and to Mississippi to gamble,” Democratic Rep. Juandalynn Givan of Birmingham said.

Opponents expressed opposition to allowing casinos in the state and the swift pace at which the proposal is moving through the Alabama Legislature.

Republican Rep. Jim Carns of Vestavia Hills said the proposal is “full of a rat poison.” Carns said the bill, which was voted on one week after it was introduced in the House, has not gotten enough scrutiny.

“Gambling causes social problems in the state of Alabama,” Carns said.

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. Republican Gov. Kay Ivey and Republican House leaders got behind this year’s proposal.

“I have long said the people of Alabama deserve to have another say on gaming, and today’s passage of HB151 and HB152 in the House is an important step forward and very significant, as this has not been accomplished by the House in years,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement.

Ledbetter likened the situation to alcohol and Prohibition. He said that illegal gambling has become so common that it is time finally to do something to legalize it so the state can control it.

Three of the 10 possible casino sites would be on tribal land owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

The new Alabama Gaming Commission would issue licenses for up to seven casinos, reserving six for Jefferson, Greene, Macon, Mobile, Lowndes and Houston counties. A final licensed 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 six named counties are locations where dog tracks operated or where the state tried to shut down large electronic bingo machines at places such as VictoryLand.

Republican Rep. Chris Blackshear, the bill’s sponsor, said those locations have an opportunity to seek the licenses, but it is not guaranteed.

“Everybody is on equal ground and has equal opportunity,” Blackshear said.

The Legislative Services Agency estimated that taxes on the three forms of gambling would generate between $635 million and $913 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.

Republican Sen. Greg Albritton, who will shepherd the bill in on the Senate, said he is cautiously optimistic that the bill will be approved in the Senate.

“We may get this to the voters this year,” Albritton said.

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