MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Tuesday passed a historic package of legislation that would legalize, regulate and implement a lottery, casino gaming in select locations and sports betting in the Yellowhammer State.
The effort has been spearheaded by Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston), whose SB 214 fell two votes short in the upper chamber earlier this year. However, Marsh kept working after that initial hiccup, ultimately working with Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) to advance new legislation that ended up largely being modeled off of SB 214.
The package passed Tuesday was anchored by a constitutional amendment, SB 319, that was originally introduced by McClendon as a lottery-only proposal. However, SB 319 was substituted and then amended three times on the floor; that process led to the constitutional amendment also including casino gaming and sports wagering.
Casino gaming would be authorized only at sites in Jefferson County, Mobile County, Macon County, Greene County, Houston County, and Jackson or DeKalb County. The licenses for these sites would go to the highest responsible bidder, with existing operators in those counties getting the right to make a final bid; for the Jackson/DeKalb site, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians would have the right to a final bid.
The vote to pass SB 319 was 23-9. As a constitutional amendment, at least 21 votes were needed. Four senators who voted against SB 214 decided to support SB 319: Senators Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road), Chris Elliott (R-Daphne), Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) and David Sessions (R-Grand Bay).
The Senate also passed three enabling bills that would implement the provisions of SB 319 should the constitutional amendment pass the House and then a referendum of the people. Those bills, sponsored by Marsh, were SBs 309, 310 and 311.
“The Senate has been debating this topic for decades, and it is finally time we provide the people of our state with a solid product to address this issue,” Marsh stated. “Our people are driving across state lines to gamble and purchase lottery tickets, and those neighboring states are collecting the revenue and reaping the benefits straight from the pockets of Alabamians. This is revenue that can be used to finance countless desperately needed projects for our state and improve the quality of life for those who live here. I am proud to have worked on this issue, and I am thankful to Senator McClendon for having pushed this bill through the Senate. I am excited that this legislation is now one step closer to going to the people of Alabama for a vote.”
Proponents of the legislation point out that for the first time in state history, the package passed by the Senate Tuesday would fully control and cap gaming that already exists in the shadows in Alabama. Enforcement would be given teeth so illegal operators could be weeded out once and for all.
Based on work previously conducted by the Governor’s Study Group on Gambling, the package would generate between $510-710 million annually.
The legislation now heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.
“Every time I go back to my district, the message is clear: people want to have the right to vote on a state lottery and gaming,” McClendon commented. “I appreciate the input from my colleagues in the Senate and the willingness of members of the House of Representatives and the Governor’s office to participate in a discussion about this transformational issue for our state. I am hopeful about the potential of getting this Constitutional Amendment in front of Alabamians so that they have a chance to make the final call on this critical decision for the future of our state.”
The distribution of revenue in the package is similar to SB 214, directing proceeds to education, scholarships, high-speed broadband internet access, rural health care, mental health care, agricultural programs, roads and bridges, and more.
The enabling legislation, among other provisions, would ban elected officials from accepting political contributions from gaming interests.
Senate Pro Tem Greg Reed (R-Jasper) remarked, “I commend the members of this body for the collaborative, hard work that has been put into this effort to bring a vote on the lottery and gaming to the people of Alabama. Working together, Senators have taken the lead on a complicated issue, and delivered a strong product that sets a roadmap to how our state can finally begin to cap, regulate and control, as well as collect taxes on this industry, which has existed in our state for decades.”
“It is clear that, whether for or against lottery and gaming, the people of Alabama want to have the right to vote on the issue,” he continued. “The Senate today did its job in allowing Alabamians to exercise that right.”
The effort to pass the legislation was also bipartisan.
“This has been a long time coming. The people of Alabama deserve the right to be able to vote on gaming, and they have wanted this chance for the past 20 years. This vote will allow our residents to finally reap the benefits of gaming, by allowing those who play games in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, or Tennessee to now play those same games at home,” added Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro). “This vote has the potential to be a major game-changer for our education and healthcare systems. I’m proud to be a part of this legislative body and this is a great day for the state of Alabama.”
Tuesday was the 22nd day of the legislature’s 2021 regular session; there can be a maximum of 30 legislative days in the session.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn