MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Lottery and casino legislation will be decided in the last two days of the legislative session after being advanced Tuesday by the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee.
The committee voted to send the bill to the floor of the House of Representatives.
The decision came after a public hearing in which opponents said the bill picks “winners and losers” by naming the nine casino locations. And proponents said it was time to give Alabama voters the opportunity to vote on gambling for the first time in two decades. If approved by lawmakers, the measure would go before voters in November 2022.
The bill would establish a state lottery. Casinos would be located at Victory Land dog track in Macon county, Greentrack dog track in Greene County, Mobile County Race Course in Mobile County and the Crossing at Big Creek in Houston County. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians would also have casinos at its three locations plus the final bid for a new north Alabama site in either Jackson or DeKalb counties.
“So, 1999 was the last time the citizens of Alabama had an opportunity to vote on a comprehensive gaming plan or any type of gambling in the state. Since then, almost 200 pieces of legislation pertaining to gambling, gaming lottery have been introduced in some form,” Republican Rep. Chris Blackshear of Phenix City said.
Opponents said the legislation has the government picking “winners and losers.”
“It literally takes the name of a business and imbeds it in our Constitution. When have you ever seen that happen?” said Phil Williams, a former state senator who now heads the conservative Alabama Policy Institute.
Some opponents argued it was unfair to exclude existing electronic bingo locations in Greene and Lowndes county operating under current constitutional amendments. The state has been a long-running legal battle over the legality of the slot machine-lookalikes.
Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, R-Hayneville, said the proposal as written would close an existing electronic bingo hall in Lowndes County, one of the poorest counties in the state, while allowing a new casino location in north Alabama.
“You are not only pouring salt in the wound, you are digging the hole, putting us in it, and burying us. That’s not fair,” Lawrence said.
The proposal would name the sites for the casinos, but the casino license would be put up for bid. Some lawmakers asked what would happen if the site owner does not win the license. Blackshear said he thought if another entity won the license, it would be “very difficult to walk away from a sale, a partnership or a lease agreement.”
“That’s so gangster, though?” Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham said.
The Alabama Senate last month voted 23-9. However, the measure is facing a tough vote and a ticking legislative clock in the House of Representatives. Lawmakers have two meeting days remaining. Lawmakers plan to meet Thursday and then conclude the session May 17.
The debate on the substantial piece of legislation comes at a time when the public is being largely excluded from the Alabama Statehouse because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the public hearing was broadcast on the Legislature’s website, people have largely been unable to attend legislative proceedings.
Republican Rep. Reed Ingram of Pike Road urged lawmakers to take a pause instead of trying to push out the bill in the last two days of session. He said lawmakers could resume debate during a special session for redistricting later this year.
Democratic Rep. Berry Forte of Eufaula said the state has waited long enough. He said when he drives to Georgia from his east Alabama district, all he sees are Alabama cars with people buying lottery tickets.
“I think we should vote on it and let the folks decide if we need it or not,” Forte said.