A proposal for five new casinos, two satellite casinos, sports betting, a lottery, and a state commission to regulate gambling received approval today in an Alabama Senate committee.
The Tourism Committee approved the two-bill plan on 9-1 votes after a public hearing. That puts it in line for a vote in the Senate.
Today’s vote came after a public hearing during which about eight people spoke in opposition to the plan. Some opposed it because it would shut down or cut back electronic bingo operations in Greene County and Lowndes County that provide jobs and revenue in those communities. Others said gambling is poor public policy that hurts the poor and causes social problems, including addiction.
The bills are by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore. When Albritton announced the plan last week, he said Alabama needs statewide regulation of gambling because the state receives no tax revenue or benefit from the gambling that goes on now.
Albritton reiterated those points today. He said the only expansion of gambling in his proposal is the lottery, which would support education scholarships.
“This is not a gaming expansion,” Albritton said. “This is a gaming control bill, so that the state exercises its sovereignty over this industry, just like it does the chicken industry. Just like it does the construction industry. Just like the banking industry. It exercises a sovereignty and it regulates the operations. It controls the growth in locations and it taxes them.”
The plan is similar to one that passed the Senate last year but did not have enough support for a vote in the House of Representatives. If three-fifths of senators and representatives approve the legislation it would go on the ballot for voters to have the final say.
The legislation would:
Alabama voters have not had a chance to vote on a lottery since Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposal was rejected in 1999. Forty-five states have lotteries, including the four that border Alabama.
Albritton said he expects his bill to be up for consideration in the Senate next week.
Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, which advocates on behalf of churches and opposes gambling bills and bills to expand the availability of alcohol, said Albritton’s plan would expand gambling.
A compact between the governor and the Poarch Band would allow the tribe to add the full range of casino games such as blackjack, roulette, and craps to their three electronic bingo casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka, and Montgomery, in addition to the new casino in northwest Alabama, Godfrey noted.
“Then on top of that, the senator even acknowledged that the lottery would be an expansion,” Godfrey said. “So in those ways, it’s expanding tremendously.”
Albritton noted that his plan would put a cap on the number of casinos in the state and provide control over the electronic bingo casinos that now operate under local constitutional amendments, even though the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that the electronic bingo machines are illegal slot machines.
“Does anyone know how many casinos are in operation Alabama now?” Albritton asked.
Later, he said, “All the operations are going on now. Nothing comes into the state, whether that be PCI (the Poarch Creeks), whether that be Greene County, whether that be Lowndes County, the state does not receive a penny.”
Although Albritton’s plan designates Greenetrack in Greene County for one of the casinos, it would shut down the other electronic bingo casinos that provide funding for the county and towns.
Forkland Mayor Charles McAlpine said his town of about 700 people would lose about a third of its revenue and said it would affect police, the court, and senior citizen services.
Lobbyist Ryan DeGraffenried Jr., represents one of the bingo operations in Greene County that would close. DeGraffenried said it has 70 employees and was about to open a new, larger facility that would employ more than 200 people and have two restaurants and a music venue.
“It’s our contention this bill is picking winners and losers again,” DeGraffenried said. “We ask this body and the entire legislature, consider letting the market dictate who survives down there.”
Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville, spoke in opposition to the bill. Although Lowndes County is designated for one of the two satellite casinos, Lawrence said the plan would force one of two electronic bingo casinos in the county to close.
“This bill would definitely have a negative impact,” said Lawrence, who has represented Lowndes County since 2014. “It would restrict the current operation and limit the number of machines that we can currently have in our facility. It would also decrease the current jobs that we have. Basically said, it’s unfair, it is unequally distributed across the state. We shouldn’t be as the legislature in the posture of picking winners and losers, especially in a free market economy.”
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, chairman of the Tourism Committee, said hopes the plan can make it through the legislative process and go to the voters. Marsh has sponsored lottery and casino bills in previous years, including one last year. He said there is no issue he hears more about from people in his district.
“The legislative process, it is what it is, but I would encourage my House counterparts to do all they can to get leadership to bring this up and before the House,” Marsh said. “Make changes. Go through this process. But thus far it’s been the Senate has been doing the work on this. And I would hope today we continue to keep something alive to be discussed.”
Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, was the only member of the Tourism Committee to vote no today.
Voting yes were Sens. Marsh, Billy Beasley; D-Clayton, Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope; Andrew Jones, R-Centre; Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery; Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro; Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro; Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham; and Randy Price, R-Opelika.