69.6 F
Mobile
68 F
Huntsville
69.6 F
Birmingham
58 F
Montgomery

Alabama House advances legal gaming, education lottery, statewide vote

A two-bill package to allow a statewide lottery, casinos, sports betting, and a proposed regulatory structure to oversee it all passed a vote of the Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday. Such a proposal has not been agreed upon by both chambers of the Alabama Legislature yet in the 21st century. 

The first bill, totaling only nine pages, is a constitutional amendment to authorize a statewide education lottery, traditional raffles and bingo, casino-style gaming, and sports wagering. It also sets forth the structure of a 9-member Alabama Gaming Commission and enables the Governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Such an amendment would require the approval of Alabama voters on the November 2024 general election ballot. 

The second bill, a longer and more detailed proposal, serves as the implementation framework for how gaming in Alabama would operate, how illegal operations would be enforced and where the estimated half-billion dollars in annual revenue would be distributed. 

Both bills were approved by House lawmakers on Thursday. 

“This bill is a product of this legislative body, which I’m more proud of than anything else we’ve done,” State Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City)  said. “We wrote this legislation from the inside out. Nobody from the outside gave us anything to start with – and that’s the one thing I’m the proudest on.”

Blackshear is the sponsor of both bills and leading the effort in 2024 to allow Alabama voters to decide if they want legal forms of gaming in the state – which was rejected the last time it was before them in 1999. 

RELATED: Ivey backs vote on legal gaming, state lottery: ‘Now is the time for Alabama voters to have another say’

“I want to emphasize three very important facts before we start. One, we have gambling in Alabama today. Two, we have illegal sportsbooks, gaming halls, casinos and more. It’s not tapped, it’s not controlled, or taxed in any way whatsoever,” Rep. Blackshear said.

Above all, Blackshear argued, “the people want to vote.” He referenced recent polling that indicated as many as 91% of Alabama voters support the legislature allowing a vote on the issue. 

“So, no matter what your personal opinion is on this issue, your constituents want to vote,” Blackshear told lawmakers before deliberations on Thursday. 

Two hours later, in a 70-32 vote, House lawmakers authorized the constitutional amendment. 

Some members opposed to the bill expressed fundamental reservations about legalizing gambling in Alabama while others expressed detail-specific reservations. 

“Seems like I’ve been here before, guys. This has come up dozens of times over the last 20 years,” Rep. Jim Carnes (R-Vestavia Hills) said, speaking from experience as a member of the House since 1990. 

“We know, we’ve already established, that gambling causes social problems in the state of Alabama. Gambling takes money from the commerce in the state of Alabama,” he said. “We are opening the door to things we could not imagine 15 years down the road.” 

Once lawmakers approved the constitutional amendment portion of the bill, they also passed the enabling legislation, which dictates specifics of the Alabama Gaming Commission, its enforcement division, the creation of an Alabama Lottery Corporation, licensure requirements, and revenue distribution mechanisms.

RELATED: Opponents to Alabama gaming legislation convey sharp criticisms at press conference

It also identifies specific sites for up to seven future casinos across the state, including Mobile, Houston, Lowndes, Macon, Greene and Jefferson Counties, and one location in Northeast Alabama, reserved exclusively for a potential compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI). 

PCI is opposed to the bill in its current form and “hopeful” that lawmakers can address their concerns along the legislative process. 

“While we remain hopeful that lawmakers will pass legislation that harnesses the full power of gaming for the benefit of all Alabamians, we cannot support this legislation in its current form,” their latest official statement read.

“We have been able to successfully operate gaming businesses for decades which have allowed us to invest more than $1 billion into capital within the state, employ thousands of Alabamians, and generated significant economic impacts. These efforts help support education, healthcare, and other critical local and state services. Unfortunately, the current legislation stymies our ability to operate competitive gaming enterprises based on our proven business model.”

“We respect Governor Ivey and leaders in the House and Senate working on a plan to give the people of Alabama the right to vote on this issue. Which is why we should all work together to ensure the best solution is presented for Alabama businesses and is brought to Alabamians for consideration.” 

RELATED: Is Alabama feeling lucky about gaming in 2024?

A major component of the package details the creation of a statewide lottery to benefit education. 

As currently written, the allocation of all lottery proceeds would be invested into a forthcoming Lottery for Education Fund earmarked for annual supplemental appropriations for educational purposes, including school security enhancements, the Last-Dollar scholarship program for 2-year community and technical colleges, dual enrollment programs, and non-recurring capital expenses in the education sector.

The enforcement division of the proposed commission would include investigators, auditors, compliance officers, administrative staff, and officers with arrest powers tasked with upholding gaming regulations and combating unlawful activities.

Some lawmakers have argued the enforcement component is too centralized within the new commission. Alabama’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Steve Marshall expressed “serious concerns” in a statement.

“I find it unconscionable that we would reward those who have flagrantly defied our criminal and civil laws, as well as the judgments entered against them by our state’s highest court. While this bill will clearly benefit a handful of special interests, it is difficult for me to see how it is a solution to any of our state’s most pressing problems,” Marshall said.

The Alabama House successfully advancing the package on Thursday marks a major milestone in the decades-long push to institute legal forms of gambling in Alabama while seizing the benefits of its revenue streams. During the latest attempt to pass a comprehensive framework in the 2022 legislative session, the Senate put its seal of approval on State Sen. Greg Albritton’s (R-Atmore) proposal, but negotiations fell short in the House.

Albritton, who stood alongside Reps. Chris Blackshear, Andy Whitt (R-Harvest) and Sam Jones (D-Mobile) at a press conference last week to announce the package, now in the hands of the Alabama Senate, said lawmakers have a strong proposal in front of them.

“We as a people have questioned why we haven’t been able to accomplish this,” Sen. Albritton said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re closer now than we have ever been to getting this matter put to rest.”

Grayson Everett is the state and political editor for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @Grayson270

Don’t miss out!  Subscribe today to have Alabama’s leading headlines delivered to your inbox.