Published: February 15, 2024

Alabama House approves legislation establishing lottery, casino gambling, sports wagering

The bills move to the Alabama Senate.

The Alabama House of Representatives Thursday passed an ambitious legislative package that — if approved by the Senate and state voters — could create a state-regulated gambling industry for the first time in history.

HB 151, sponsored by Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Smiths Station, a constitutional amendment authorizing a state lottery, limited casino gambling and sports betting in the state, passed the House 70-32.

HB 152, also sponsored by Blackshear, would set tax rates on legal gambling  and provide for distribution of revenues and enforcement policies. It passed 67-31.

“Finally, at least from the House perspective, we heard you loud and clear from the polling, and we’re giving the citizens the right to decide what they want in the state as it relates to gaming,” Blackshear said to reporters after the bills’ passage.

The bills head to the Alabama Senate. If approved by the upper chamber, the constitutional amendment would head to a statewide vote later this year. The enabling legislation, if passed, would go to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.

Ivey said in a statement Thursday that the bills “in their current form” have her support.

“The proposal passed by the House will clean up and crack down on the rampant illegal gambling and will give Alabamians the opportunity to have their say on regulated, limited forms of gaming,” the statement said.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said in a statement Thursday that the Senate is “prepared and ready to address gaming and lottery legislation passed by the House of Representatives.”

Alabama’s constitution bans lotteries and gambling, though local amendments have allowed electronic bingo. Past attempts to establish a lottery and bring casino-type gaming to the state have foundered amid industry disputes and divisions within the House Republican caucus.

Thursday’s vote on HB 152 showed that those divisions remained in place. The bill passed with the support of House Democrats, who have long supported expanded gambling, and 38 Republicans. 31 Republicans voted against it.

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, who criticized the legislation for what he called a lack of minority participation in the businesses, was the only Democrat who spoke against the bills. But Rogers voted for both.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said that he is also concerned with minority participation in the gambling business. He also wants to ensure that licenses are divided equally across the state.

“I want to make sure where the money’s going is in some places, that where it’s going to move the needle, you know, for children for elderly and to try to help with some of our budgeting processes,” he said.

 Rep. Ben Harrison, R-Elkmont, speaks during a debate in the Alabama House of Representatives on gambling legislation on Feb. 15, 2024 at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. The House approved a constitutional amendment that would create a state lottery and authorize casino gaming and sports wagering. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

Rep. Ben Harrison, R-Elkmont, one of the bill’s opponents, said Alabama has a mental health crisis, and that the Legislature is doing something that they “know will increase that problem.”

He said the most affected people will be those who can least afford to gamble.

“You put down a little money and hope to win a big cash prize in return. If it was only that easy,” Harrison said. “Simple math tells you that there must be more losers and winners to make gambling profitable for the owner of the gambling operation.”

Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham, a supporter of the bill, said Alabamians were traveling to other states to gamble and helping those states with their education and infrastructure. Hollis said that Alabamians are funding projects in other states, such as infrastructure and education, because they travel so they can gamble.

“We should bring this money home,” she said.

‘Our economic developer’

Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, whose district includes Victoryland, a dogtrack and casino in Macon County, said that gaming facilities had boosted the local economy.

“I’m just really, really glad we’re at the point today, because, you know, we talk about our counties and economic development, but for Macon County, gaming has been our economic developer,” she said.

She said the gaming facility had a largest number of people employed and that it did more for the community and nonprofits than any other entity.

 Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, speaks during a debate in the Alabama House of Representatives on gambling legislation on Feb. 15, 2024 in the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. The House approved a constitutional amendment that would create a state lottery and allowing casino gambling and sports wagering. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

“Now we can really give the people the choice to decide if they want gaming in the state of Alabama,” Warren said.

Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, said that the constitutional amendment would allow a statewide vote on matters that would affect only a certain number of counties, and that it would be “remiss” of him to vote for something he knew would be damaging to individuals.

Mooney suggested an amendment that would specify that local approval would require a vote of the citizens of the county and in this valley where the establishment would be located. It was tabled.

“There are people who are concerned that something would be built next to their home. There are people who are concerned that something might be built next to their business,” Mooney said.

He also said that the Alabama Constitution has a gambling prohibition because they knew back then the “dangers or consequences” of gambling.

“I came to the conclusion in my personal understanding of things that probably the things that go into our Constitution should be items that are of tantamount accordance to the benefit and good of the people of our state,” Mooney said.

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, said that the Alabama Constitution was drafted over a century ago, and disenfranchised Alabamians and created an “improperly funded” education system.

“This is an opportunity to simply amend our constitution to give the people of this state the opportunity to decide if they want to do that or not. That is almost the very essence of democracy,” Hill said.

Fiscal impact

The bill would would create a state lottery and authorize sports wagering. It would also authorize casinos in areas that have or recently had some form of electronic bingo-type gaming, including Macon County, Greene County, Houston County, Lowndes County, Mobile and Birmingham.

The legislation would also authorize Gov. Kay Ivey to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to regulate its existing casinos in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka and for a casino in northeast Alabama.

A spokesperson for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians declined comment on the bill’s passage on Tuesday. Robert McGhee, the vice-chair of the Poarch Band’s tribal council, told legislators Tuesday that the tribe wanted to see language in the legislation requiring Ivey to start negotiations and set a timeline.

Blackshear said at a public hearing Tuesday on the two bills that it could bring in between as much as $1.214 billion to the state. According to HB 152’s fiscal note, $315 million to $492.2 million would come from casinos; $15 million to 42.5 million from sports wagering; $305.6 million to $379.4 million from the lottery. Blackshear said another $300 million would come from a potential compact with the Poarch Band.

Rogers said that “once you open it up, the big boys coming.” He said he is for gaming, but he wants to be fair to Black Alabamians.

“I want something in this bill that guarantees that folks like me get their fair share,” he said.

Blackshear said that would be “the first thing in this bill that picks winners and losers.”

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said the House GOP caucus was able to overcome the division that had sunk gambling bills in the past by soliciting input from the governor and members of both chambers. He also said no lobbyist had input.

“When you got some lobbyists sending out texts today saying ‘vote no,’ it’s because they didn’t get what they want,” Ledbetter said. “And it wasn’t for the lobbyists. It’s for the people in the state.”

The Alabama Farmers Federation, which opposed passage of the measure, did not have a statement on the bills’ passage on Thursday. Communications director Jeff Helms said  they “will continue to work with members to educate” them on the dangers of gambling.

The Senate, which has been more favorable to gambling legislation in the past, could vote on the comprehensive legislation as early as next week.

Singleton said that he’s happy to see the bills pass the House and that “the people in the state of Alabama have an opportunity to get to vote on it.”

“I’m sure it’s been something that they have been toiling over for the last few weeks, and nobody knew what was really in the bill,” he said. “And I kind of expected them to be there all night.”,the%20first%20time%20in%20history.

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