Scholarships. Funding for rural health care. New roads and bridges. These are just a few examples of what revenue from gaming and a state lottery could provide to Alabama. Like so many of our fellow Alabamians, we had great hopes that in this legislative session, elected leaders would have both the will and a way to craft and pass a comprehensive gaming bill that ultimately, citizens could vote on. With “Groundhog Day” predictability, however, the session ended with a missed opportunity to regulate and tax gaming for the benefit of all who call Alabama home.
It is important to recognize that some serious efforts were undertaken this year by legislators and real progress was made. The Senate passed SB 319, which limited, regulated, and taxed gaming businesses, provided a steady stream of revenue to the state’s coffers, funded rural health care, mental health services and public schools, and created thousands of new jobs and new tourist destination resorts. Many of our state’s elected officials worked tirelessly to develop what they believed to be a thoughtful, equitable plan only to have it fail in final negotiations.
We understand the frustration that comes with being so close to a solution. Our Tribe had offered to share proceeds of our gaming revenue as part of this comprehensive gaming plan for Alabama, and we had hoped that the legislature would take us up on our offer. We offered to be part of the solution because we know the economic power of gaming when it is done right. Our gaming operations enable our Tribal Government to fund many essential services like health care, scholarships and infrastructure. We supported the comprehensive gaming plan under consideration during this legislative session, in no small measure, because it would have provided those same essential services to citizens throughout the state at a time when they are desperately needed.
Additionally, like so many of our fellow Alabamians, we are frustrated that gaming dollars are being spent in neighboring states, especially considering that the drain of revenue from Alabama is paying to send Georgians to college and paying for rural healthcare in Mississippi. In addition, it is deeply concerning that the Governor’s Study Group on Gambling report found that unregulated, illegal gaming continues to flourish in our state. Just last month, the Anniston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies raided multiple establishments and found more than 75 illegal gaming machines.
Ending the legislative session with an opportunity missed is not just a benign lack of action. I grew up in a community that lacked essential services, and I worry what a lack of funding for rural healthcare can mean for families. I worry students who work hard to have a better future will not have the financial means to attend college and make their dreams come true. I know so many of our bridges are old and our roads need repairs, and I worry that a continued lack of attention to our infrastructure needs could cause serious problems. And after these last hard months of the pandemic especially, I know how important it is for people who need mental health services to have help available.
We understand that harnessing the power of gaming to help our state is not a simple task. It requires a detailed plan to regulate gaming businesses and a will to recognize that gaming done right can dramatically improve services that affect Alabamians’ quality of life. We support a regulated gaming plan that will bring millions of dollars in tax revenue to the state and most importantly allow our Tribal Government and the existing pari-mutuel gaming operators the opportunity to increase jobs, providing sustainable employment that will support thousands of families.
We have always believed that the voters of our state deserve a chance to determine the future of gaming in Alabama, and public opinion polling shows us that voters want their chance to vote.
Unfortunately, it did not happen during this session of the Legislature. But we are not giving up. It is time that Alabamians have the opportunity to vote to limit gaming to licensed, regulated facilities that can provide a safe, fun environment for the consumer, tourism dollars for the state and ensure the state has integrity in gaming.
Stephanie A. Bryan is the chairwoman and CEO of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians