By MARY SELL, TODD STACY and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Some state lawmakers are staging a last-ditch effort to revive a wide-ranging gambling plan for passage on the last day of the 2021 regular session, but time and the legislative process are not on their side.
A series of phone calls and meetings took place this week in which members of the House and Senate from both parties discussed possible changes to the legislation pending in the House that could earn enough votes to pass. Multiple lawmakers who confirmed the discussions to Alabama Daily News described them as productive.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said the bi-partisan group looked at where the House and Senate differed on the most recent bill, “trying to get everyone on the same page.”
“We think that we’ll comprehensively come together with a piece that we can agree with in terms of the constitutional amendment. We may not have all the time to pass the enabling legislation, but we are putting the clause in that amendment to say that the constitution amendment cannot be ratified until the enabling legislation is passed, and that is important to a lot of our members, both House and Senate, both Republicans and Democrats.
“… It may not be perfect, but. We’re trying to get something everyone can live with.”
Still, some believe the last day of session won’t allow enough time for such a high profile bill to pass. Last week, it took two days for the House to pass medical marijuana legislation due to an extended filibuster.
Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, has been quarterbacking the gambling legislation in the House and participated in this week’s discussions. He said that, while the talks have been positive, the late timing makes it unrealistic for a bill to be brought up and passed.
“I do not expect to see the comprehensive gambling plan or any other bill, lottery or what have you, on the floor Monday,” Blackshear said. “I would say (last) Thursday night it was on life support and now life support has been removed but we’re still in the ICU.”
Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, who sponsored the Senate-passed gambling bill, agreed, saying House and Senate members are working well together to revive the plan, but that the timing makes it near impossible.
“With the House having a budget in front of them and some other things they’ve got to deal with, I think the likelihood is very, very slim that they’ll have something to send to the Senate,” McClendon said Wednesday. “But we did make a last-ditch effort, a number of people got together and did work on it. We did make good progress. But I think we’re just out of time, again.”
He said he’d be “shocked” if anything comes from the discussions on Monday, the last day of the session.
Thursday on the House floor, negotiations between Democrats and Republicans seemed to break down while tempers rose. Leadership called the passage of a bill “doubtful.”
What’s in the bill?
The plan, which passed the Senate in April, would institute a lottery, authorize sports betting and legalize casinos around the state. It has since been awaiting action in the House of Representatives, where previous gambling legislation has struggled in recent years.
Under a revamped proposal introduced last week, a state gambling regulatory commission would be established to license five existing casinos in Macon, Mobile, Greene and Jefferson counties, and one yet-to-be determined northeast Alabama casino promised to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The Poarch Creeks’ current three casinos on federal trust land would continue to be federally regulated, but the state would be advised to enter into a compact with the tribe for Class III table games.
All lottery revenue would be directed toward education initiatives, including scholarships for higher education and trade schools and a loan forgiveness program for graduates who locate back in Alabama. For casino and sports book annual revenue, almost 50% would be up to the Legislature to appropriate toward “capital or other non-recurring expenses,” 40% would be earmarked for “enhanced health care services” and 10% would be divided among counties and cities also for “capital or other non-recurring expenses.”
Still, as negotiations between House Republicans, House Democrats and the Governor’s office went into the night Thursday, other drafts with more changes were proposed. None of those drafts were made public.
According to Singleton and Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa, priorities for Democrats include directing revenue towards public health care and ensuring black ownership and vendor equity in the casino and sports betting entities allowed in the plan.
“If you’re interested in protecting the entities that exist you would have to have equity for all of them,” England said.
Lawmakers are well aware of how popular the lottery issue is with voters.
“My constituents are clear,” Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, said.”They want to vote on a lottery and gaming. I’ll continue to work with my colleagues to negotiate the best deal for Alabama taxpayers that will actually pass so that we can get it on the ballot for the voter’s consideration.”
Last day, last chance?
There are multiple bills that could compete with gambling for limited time on Monday. The House has still not concurred with conference committee changes to the General Fund budget, and House conservatives are pushing to pass legislation restricting medical treatment for transgender youth and prohibiting vaccine passports, two bills that would almost certainly have prolonged filibusters.
To pass a bill quickly, House rules allow lawmakers to invoke cloture, or cut off debate, but it takes a three-fifths vote of the body and leaders have been sparring on the use of cloture in recent years.
Singleton said whether or not there is a vote on gambling will ultimately be up to House leadership.
“I think if the speaker gives up the opportunity to debate this bill, we can get it through on the last night,” he said.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon wouldn’t say whether gambling might be on the agenda, but did note the other issues before the House.
“The Rules Committee has not yet met to set the final day’s agenda, but certainly there are a number of outstanding issues, including bills dealing with Second Amendment gun rights, banning vaccine passports, and others,” McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, told Alabama Daily News on Wednesday.
Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, has been one of the main voices of opposition for any kind of gambling expansion in the state. He told ADN that he would still be against any kind of bill that may come up on Monday.
“Gambling is gambling, whether it’s a lottery or full-blown gambling, it’s still gambling,” Wingo said. “…And in order for someone to win, someone has to lose, and when the state benefits from people’s losses, that just isn’t what government should be doing,”
Wingo couldn’t say if there would be an organized filibuster if a bill were to come up on the last day but said he “hopes so.”
Multiple sources told ADN that draft legislation was being passed around among top lawmakers. However, England said drafts had not been distributed to the entire Democratic Caucus.
“Whatever was coming up on Thursday, it hadn’t gone through committee, it hasn’t been vetted at all and at least I know it hadn’t been discussed with my caucus, so as it stands right now, no nothing that I’m aware of has been circulated,” England told ADN.
House Minority leader Anthony Daniels, D-Hunstville, would not say how his caucus is feeling on the gambling issue on Wednesday, saying he wants to wait until negotiations are completely done to be fair to all parties involved.
“I’ll wait till those negotiations are done before weighing in because at the end of the day I want something good to happen for all of us,” Daniels said. “I don’t want to position us to go backwards, so whatever happens, at the end I will be very transparent of where we are.”
Blackshear said the recent conversations between Republicans and Democrats have been productive toward crafting a bill that could pass in a special session, should Ivey call one.
Ivey told Alabama Daily News in March that a special session on gambling was “on the table” if a bill didn’t pass in the regular session. However, asked by reporters on Friday if she foresees a special session, Ivey said, “no, I do not.”
McClendon said hope for a special session remains, but was careful not to sound too optimistic.
“Did we lay the groundwork for the future? Lord, I don’t know,” McClendon, who has sponsored lottery bills in multiple sessions, said. “I’ve been laying the groundwork for the future for years.”