By KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A lottery and casino bill cleared its first hurdle in the Alabama Legislature as supporters push to get the issue of gambling before voters for the first time since 1999.
The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee unanimously voted to advance the legislation to the full Alabama Senate. Sponsor Sen. Del Marsh said he anticipates the Senate will discuss the bill Thursday, but he will not seek a vote until lawmakers return from a planned weeklong break.
“I firmly believe the people of Alabama want to address this issue once and for all,” Marsh said during the committee voting.
The bill proposes a state lottery as well as five casinos offering table games, sports betting and slot machines. The casinos would be located at four existing dog tracks plus a fifth site in north Alabama that would be run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the state’s only federally recognized Native American tribe. The proposal also would encourage the governor to negotiate with the Poarch Band for a compact involving their three other sites which currently have electronic bingo machines.
The proposal would have to be approved by a three-fifths majority of each chamber of the Alabama Legislature and then a majority of voters in a statewide vote.
The bill will need 21 yes votes to clear the Alabama Senate.
Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said he was undecided on the bill because of the casino portion. Waggoner said he believes most voters support a lottery, but he was uncertain about allowing casinos in the state.
“I’ve got to think about casinos a long time, but I think lottery would be an easy sale to the Legislature and to the public. There is going to be debate on opening up Alabama to casinos,” Waggoner said.
The Legislative Services Agency estimated the lottery would generate $194-$279 million annually for college scholarships awarded on a mix of need, merit and workforce needs in the state. The agency estimated the casinos would generate $260-$393 million annually from the 20% tax on gaming revenues as authorized by this amendment.
Marsh is proposing to use casino revenue to help expand broadband access in the state as well as to fund mental and rural health services.
Alabamians last voted on gambling in 1999 when they defeated a lottery proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman.
Gambling bills introduced since 1999 have fallen short under a mix of conservative opposition to gambling as a revenue source and a turf war over which entities could offer casino games or electronic bingo machines, which resemble slot machines.
Marsh said the location the tribe would operate would be located in either Jackson or DeKalb counties. The other four would be at VictoryLand dog track in Macon County, Greenetrack in Green County, the racecourse in
Birmingham and the racecourse in Mobile, which is owned by the Poarch Band.
Sharon Wheeler, a lobbyist representing the Whitehall Entertainment Center, a smaller electronic bingo operator in Lowndes County, said it was unfair to exclude the smaller site that provides jobs in an one of the most impoverished area of the state, while allowing cities and north Alabama to have casinos and the jobs they create.
Sen. Malika Sanders Fortier, who represents the area, sent a letter to the committee asking her colleagues to include the site.
The bill was approved by committee with little discussion, but Marsh said he expects lawmakers will discuss the bill during the break.