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Legal gaming debate in Alabama to continue after House rejects Senate changes

On Thursday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a motion of nonconcurrence on the Senate’s gaming substitute to send the gambling bill to a six-member conference committee. Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter appointed State Reps. Andy Whitt (R-Harvest), Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City) and Sam Jones (D-Mobile) as the three House members.

“From the very beginning, we had three key goals with the House’s comprehensive legislation,” Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) said on Thursday. “Those included eliminating illegal gaming operations in the state of Alabama, developing a framework for the taxation and regulation of facilities that obtain licenses through an open-bid process and establishing a lottery that benefits education and education only.”

Thursday afternoon, President Pro Tempore of the Alabama Senate Greg Reed (R-Jasper) stood up for the changes made by his chamber.

“The Alabama Senate is proud of the legislation we passed to stop unregulated gaming, close illegal casinos, and allow Alabamians the ability to vote on a statewide paper lottery,” Reed (R-Jasper) said. “Our priorities were to put bad actors who illegally operate gaming facilities in Alabama out of business and give Alabamians an ability to vote for a statewide paper lottery at the ballot box.”

“Our legislation accomplished that goal,” Reed said.

The House passed a bill that would have created up to ten Class III casinos in the state with slot machines, table games, parimutuel betting, sports gambling, electronic bingo, and more. A new state agency with law enforcement powers would be created to regulate gambling in Alabama and close all of the illegal gambling operations in the state after 2027.

RELATED: Alabama House advances legal gaming, education lottery, statewide vote

It proposed specific counties in which casinos could be located, authorized the Governor of Alabama to enter a compact with Alabama’s federally-recognized Native American tribe, the Poarch band of Creek Indians (PCI) and would place the question of changing the Alabama Constitution to legalize gaming on the November 2024 general election ballot for the first time since 1999.

It’s now understood that proposal was received by the Senate as far too ambitious. The Senate substituted that bill in committee and then amended it eight times on the floor to move some form of gambling out of the Senate.

“At an estimated $1.2 billion annually, the House’s legislation creates so many opportunities for our state,” said Rep. Andy Whitt on Thursday upon nonconcurrence.

“The lottery revenue alone would make attending community college for thousands of Alabama’s students possible and bolster school safety in our K-12 schools. Simply put, the Senate plan leaves some $800 million on the table, and I hope to find a solution to this in conference.”

The Senate bill removed electronic bingo, sports wagering, and online gambling in any form. It authorized the Governor to enter a compact with PCI, create a lottery, and allow existing facilities to offer gambling on historical horse racing machines and parimutuel betting. It also set up an Alabama Gambling Commission with law enforcement authorities — but moved the referendum from the November general election to a special referendum in September.

RELATED: Alabama Senate passes toned-down version of gambling legislation

Rep. Chris Blackshear (R-Phenix City) sponsored HB151 and HB152, the constitutional amendment and the enabling legislation.

“More than 14 months went into crafting this package – the first comprehensive gaming plan to ever pass in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Rep. Blackshear said. “We were thoughtful in our approach to addressing every aspect of this issue, and I truly feel that the House’s final product is what the people want to vote on.”

“I have serious concerns with the Senate’s substitute legislation,” said Blackshear. “It rewards those who have operated illegally for decades by handing them licenses without an open-bid process, utilizes lottery revenue to fund non-education expenses and fails to adequately regulate sports wagering, which is one of the most prevalent forms of illegal gaming in the state of Alabama.”

Ledbetter said Alabamians want to vote on the issue this year.

“If one thing has been made clear throughout this process, it’s that the people of Alabama want and deserve an opportunity to vote on this issue,” the Speaker said. “I am hopeful that members of the House and Senate are successful in finding a compromise that positions them to do just that.”

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

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