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ADN Inside Politics: State of play on gambling

By TODD STACY and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama lawmakers are ready to move forward with a bill calling for a statewide vote on a lottery – and only a lottery. According to multiple state senators, Senate Bill 320 will reach the Senate floor today when the body gavels in at 2:30 p.m. Yet, mere hours before debate begins, negotiations on a path forward on the issue of gambling are still very much in flux.

What happened

Several senators and House members met on Tuesday with Gov. Kay Ivey and key members of her staff to discuss the gambling issue. Ivey made it clear to lawmakers – as she did to Alabama Daily News last month – that she prefers a comprehensive gambling package, rather than a straight lottery, in order to clear up the many legal complexities and myriad enforcement of gambling throughout the state. In fact, her spokeswoman issued a relatively aggressive comment to that effect Tuesday.

However, the governor still does not have a bill or even an outline of a proposal, according to multiple sources in the room. And there isn’t likely to be one for at least a week. Ivey staff suggested that a group of lawmakers meet again on Thursday after the House and Senate adjourn and again next Tuesday, April 13th when they return to Montgomery to continue discussions on a potential bill. That will be the 22nd day of the legislative session, leaving just eight left after adjournment.

Meanwhile, the Senate GOP Caucus met Tuesday agreeing to vote on McClendon’s bill with no guarantees on votes, amendments or substitutes. There could and likely will be multiple attempts to amend the bill, but Sen. Del Marsh, whose wide-ranging gambling plan fell short by two votes last month, said he will not be bringing one.

Why it Matters

Conventional wisdom, especially after the failure of Marsh’s bill, is that a straight lottery bill could easily pass both chambers because so many people agree on a lottery. That could create a problem for those who continue to support a more comprehensive option because, once a lottery bill really starts rolling, it might be hard to stop. That’s why some lawmakers and advocates of a broader package are confused and frustrated with Ivey’s lack of a plan going forward despite her rhetoric that she wants a comprehensive plan. If there was a plan, or even the promise of one, it would be a lot easier for the Senate to delay the lottery vote and defer to the governor. But senators have constituents, too, and many are angry that a seemingly simple issue (to them) can’t be dealt with in short order. Some lawmakers tell ADN they appreciate the governor’s rhetoric on the issue, saying she’s “ready to engage” and her spokeswoman saying she’ll “dig in her heels,” but that the actions have not matched it and there is no sense of urgency with time running out in the session. Of course, there’s always the option of a special session on gambling, which Ivey said she’s willing to call. Still, if a lottery-only bill passes the Senate and House, Ivey doesn’t get so much as a ceremonial veto before it goes to the ballot. And passing a second constitutional amendment with casinos and sports book after a lottery has already passed will be a near impossible lift for the Legislature.

What’s Next

Today will be an interesting one in the Alabama Senate. One influential lawmaker told ADN to “expect the unexpected” when McClendon’s bill comes to the floor for debate. There are a few scenarios worth considering.

First, there will likely be multiple amendments and substitutions, otherwise known as attempts to rewrite portions of the bill. For starters, Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, told ADN he’s working to gather support for an amendment to use proceeds from the lottery to reduce or eliminate the state sales tax on most grocery items. Elliott said the 4% state sales tax on groceries generates about $400 million per year for the state’s education budget. A fiscal note on McClendon’s bill said it could generate about $272 million to $358 million annually.

“We’ve passed record General Fund and education budgets, and that’s wonderful,” Elliott said. “But at some point, you’ve got to ask yourself when enough is enough? I think we’re probably there and it’s time to give some of this money back to the hardworking people of the state of Alabama.”

Another amendment could come from those opposed to gambling attempting to remove a provision from McClendon’s bill that allows for a smart phone application to buy lottery tickets. Such an app could lead to rampant gambling addiction, they could argue, and the trade off isn’t worth the revenue.

Yet another amendment/substitute could come from those representing Poarch Band of Creek Indian properties adding their interests back into the bill, whether through a compact proposal or something similar to PCI’s “billion dollar plan” from 2019.

Second, Senate passage is far from a sure thing. Setting aside how any vote count might change once this or that amendment is added to the bill, votes are hard to predict. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it needs 21 votes to pass. It’s a good bet that all six Democrats expected to be in the chamber will vote No as the bill does not contain provisions to help the dog track casinos. That means 21 votes will need to be found among the current 25 members of the GOP caucus (Senate District 14 is vacant). On Marsh’ big bill, 12 Republicans voted Yes and 13 voted No. It’s safe to assume plenty of those 12 would also be a Yes on lottery only, but not all of them. Likewise, how many of the 13 would remain opposed to any gambling bill? Again, conventional wisdom says the votes are there, and McClendon himself says they should be on the bill as it is, but as we learned with Marsh’s bill, a roll call vote can break a bill sponsor’s heart.

Then there’s the possibility of a filibuster. If pro-dog track Democrats or anti-gambling Republicans really want to kill the lottery bill on Wednesday, they’ll simply filibuster. With Democrats alone, that would potentially mean 12 hours of debate in one day. Of course, it would never come to that. If Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro and filibuster expert Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, even hinted at such a move, the day would be done in the Senate.

In any case, the bill might not pass. And if it doesn’t, that might actually be the best case for a wide-ranging gambling bill to reemerge, whether in this session or a special. While some have been frustrated with Ivey dragging her feet on gambling, it could actually prove to be a wise move if she can rescue the issue from the ashes after yet another plan goes down in defeat.

All eyes will be on the Senate floor today beginning at 2:30 p.m.

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