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Gambling bill: what happened and what’s next

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MONTGOMERY — When a wide-ranging gambling bill failed to pass the State Senate earlier this month, it was a stunning defeat for the most high-profile legislation of the Alabama Legislature’s 2021 session so far.

But supporters of the plan say there is still hope to pass it or something like it in the two months that remain in the session, and the impending involvement of the governor as a vocal proponent could change the game completely.

What happened

For weeks, bill sponsor Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said publicly that he had the 21 votes needed to pass the plan in the Senate. In the end he fell two votes short.

At the time, Marsh blamed some of his GOP colleagues for the defeat, saying they “weren’t honest brokers” and switched their votes.

“Initially, when I came out with it, there were 24 or 25 yes votes on the bill,” Marsh said. “The longer it went on and people became influenced, confused, whatever you want to call it, we started losing some votes.”

Senate chamber view

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, right, speaks on the floor of the Alabama Senate Chamber. When Marsh's wide-ranging gambling bill failed to pass the State Senate earlier this month, it was a stunning defeat for the most high-profile legislation of the Alabama Legislature’s 2021 session so far. But supporters of the plan say there is still hope to pass it or something like it in the two months that remain in the session.

One frequent complaint Marsh says he heard was there was not yet enabling legislation to go along with the larger constitutional amendment. Marsh filed those bills on Thursday.

“Well, now it’s out there. It’s going to be out there all week during the break,” Marsh said. The Legislature is currently on its scheduled spring break.

Now, he says a number of senators have approached him about giving his bill another try. That has him believing there are votes to be won over among his Republican colleagues, and it might require just one.

“I believe the votes are still there,” he said.

Marsh’s Senate Bill 214 would institute a state-run lottery, codify and expand casino gambling and allow sports betting run through the casinos. Lottery revenue would go toward funding college and trade school scholarships, including for those who are retraining for new careers. Casino and sports book revenue would accrue in a new Gaming Trust Fund where it would be divided up between state accounts and programs, including for expanding access to high-speed broadband internet in rural areas, funding rural health care services and infrastructure improvements.

The bill would allow current dog track slot machine casino operators in Macon, Mobile Greene, Jefferson and Houston counties to expand to full table games while calling on Gov. Kay Ivey to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, allowing them full table games as well. Marsh’s final bill would have allowed a total of ten casinos statewide, but an amendment was adopted on the Senate floor allowing a Lowndes County location as well.

The adding of more casinos plus the already complicated nature of the bill didn’t sit well with some senators.

Majority Leader Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, was a no.

“I think having it all tied together, it really convolutes all that,” Scofield said in the wake of the vote. “And so I just think, you know, moderation on something like that is not a bad thing… Let’s ease into this as a state.”

Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, also voted no partially due to the lack of enabling legislation traveling with the bill, but said he remained open to considering future proposals.

“I will objectively consider any proposal that includes a clean constitutional amendment with corresponding enabling legislation that travel together through the process,” he told Alabama Daily News.

Enter the governor

In December, Gov. Kay Ivey’s study group on gambling policy released a report saying that if all forms of gambling were allowed in the state, Alabama could see up to $700 million in annual revenue and as many as 19,000 new jobs. The exhaustive report, complete with professional polling showing the popularity of gambling, was an impetus for Marsh’s wide-ranging bill.

Yet, other than some tepid statements generally supportive of the broader goal along the way, Ivey never truly put the weight of her office behind the plan.

That appears soon to change.

In an interview Thursday, Ivey told Alabama Daily News she believes it is time for her to join House and Senate leaders to present a plan most lawmakers can rally behind.

Ivey and leadership 2021

Gov. Kay Ivey meets with legislative leaders at the Governor’s Mansion on Thursday, March 18. From left to right, House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, Ivey, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

“I’m all for being engaged in this and getting it right. However long that takes us to get it right, let’s get it right and not rush it,” Ivey said. “I want to be engaged and I’ll be willing to play my part.”

Ivey met with legislative leadership from both parties at the Governor’s Mansion last week to discuss a way forward on gambling.

“We talked about the gambling bill and the future and we agreed that it’d be better to go back to square one and start with a bill that met all my criteria, all of my non-negotiables, and come forward in thoughtful manner and presented to both bodies so both bodies can buy into it, make modifications, change it, review it, whatever they need to do,” Ivey said.

Ivey’s office said the criteria she has offered lawmakers are that a plan:

— Be a good bargain for the state and not just gambling interests;

— Send revenue to causes that benefit everyone and not make the state dependent on gambling for essential services;

— Is transparent with an ethical system to regulate it; and

— Is able to be understood by voters when the time comes.

While some have pushed for allowing people to vote on a standalone lottery, Ivey said it would be a mistake to eschew casinos and sports betting from the bill, lest they waste the best opportunity for a statewide vote.

“The whole package brings so much good to the state,” she said. “And we’ve got gambling going on right now, but the people are not benefiting from in any way. So I’m strongly in favor of the full package.”

Asked if, in the event a bill doesn’t pass, she’d consider calling a special session of the Legislature to address gambling, Ivey said she would.

“That option is on the table,” she said.

Legislative math

Because Marsh’s proposal is a constitutional amendment, it requires approval of three-fifths of all members elected, not just those voting or in attendance. In the 35-member Senate, that’s 21 yes votes. When the roll call ended on the original vote, only 19 senators voted yes: 12 Republicans and seven Democrats. Thirteen Republicans voted no, two Democrats were not present to cast votes and one seat, previously held by a Republican, is vacant.

That leaves proponents this or a similar package needing to pick up two votes, and the path is complicated.

Though they were likely yes votes, Sen. Priscilla Dunn, Bessemer, and Sen. Malika Sanders-Fortier, Selma, are out because of health reasons. Sanders-Fortier has missed most of this session. Dunn has been largely absent from the Senate for health reasons since 2019. Asked if Dunn, 77, was expected to return to Montgomery, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats said this week she didn’t have an update on Dunn’s status. Attempts to reach Dunn via phone and email weren’t successful.

Marsh told reporters Thursday that he had spoken to Sanders-Fortier and that it was possible she would return.

One seat remains vacant. Senate District 26, which was formerly held by Republican Cam Ward, won’t be filled until July 15, after the regular session has concluded. Ward’s successor could be a factor in a special session, however.

In the House, the math is different but perhaps more daunting.

It takes 63 votes to pass a constitutional amendment in the 105-seat lower chamber. The last time the House considered gambling legislation was 2019 when a standalone lottery bill failed to clear a procedural vote. On that motion, which is often a barometer for how a vote on the actual bill would be, there were 53 yeas and 36 nays with one abstention.

While that might seem to portend trouble for any gambling bill, 22 of the nay notes were Democrats who opposed the bill because it did not include protections for existing dog track casinos. Should Democrats in the House support Marsh’s bill unanimously like they did in the Senate, the vote count gets a lot more favorable for proponents. There are currently 25 House Democrats.

At the same time, not all 53 Republicans who supported allowing the lottery bill to come up for a vote would necessarily vote in favor of a more expansive gambling bill involving casinos and sports betting.

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who carried that standalone lottery bill, said it is hard to say for sure how many Democrats might vote a different way on a larger bill, or vice versa. Clouse does believe the needle has moved on the lottery simply because of public support.

“I think there’s definitely more interest in the lottery,” Clouse said. “It’s obvious now since Mississippi started over a year ago with their lottery and now we’re surrounded. it’s a 3-1 issue with the people for the lottery, whereas the casino part is probably 50-50 at best. I’m not saying it can’t pass, I think it probably can. It gets close on the comprehensive side, whereas a lottery is a slam dunk.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, agreed that it’s difficult to predict what House members will do, especially now that there are separate proposals for only a lottery.

“So at the end of the day, I think the House body is really coming together on the lottery issue, but then on top of that they want to know what we’re going to do with the Poarch Creek Indians,” McCutcheon said. “Is the state going to get any revenue for the gaming that’s already going on in the state? Then the next question is Victoryland and the jobs that they’re providing over there, and those representatives are concerned about the economy of their people and that facility and if they’re going to be a part of this. So all of these discussions are still out there.”

A new proposal or a new vehicle?

Sens. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, and Jim McClendon, R-Springville, filed different lottery bills the day Marsh’s proposal died.

Gudger, whose district includes much of Lawrence County, said his constituents want a lottery, not more casinos. He said he made his bill as simple as possible. McClendon agreed, saying he wanted Alabamians to have in-state what they can get at neighboring states, including scratch-off tickets sold at kiosks and tickets sold electronically.

“No one has asked me for a craps table or a roulette wheel,” he said. “… I’m not doing this to raise money … I’m doing this because people want to play a lottery.”

Democrats’ support for lottery bills has fallen off in the past if they’re thought to hurt dog tracks in Democrats’ districts. McClendon at first said he’s working to get enough GOP support to pass the bill without Democrats if needed.

However, at the Senate Tourism Committee Meeting Wednesday, Gudger agreed to put his bill on the shelf for the time being to allow McClendon’s Senate Bill 319 to move forward. But the committee only gave it a favorable report after Marsh, who chairs the committee, and McClendon gave Democratic senators the assurance that they would consider adding casinos to the bill at a later time.

They described the new bill as a “vehicle” which could be amended or substituted along the way as negotiations continued.

What’s next

With lawmakers on their annual mid-session spring break this week, legislative leaders and the governor have more time to get on the same page going forward. The break also may allow more time for lawmakers to hear feedback from their constituents, Marsh said.

“I think what will happen over the next week is these discussions will take place. When we get back and Sen. McCllendon’s bill comes to the floor, I think at that point people will decide whether they want to amend that bill, substitute that, or leave that bill as it is after they’ve had more time to talk to their constituents. I think that we’re going to end up with something on the ballot between a clean lottery and a comprehensive bill.”

Marsh is also the sponsor of a bill to organize and finance broadband expansion across the state. That bill relied on his gambling proposal for some of the internet funding.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said broadband is still a critical issue, but a funding stream could now be in question. Meanwhile, state leaders found out last week that the newest federal coronavirus relief package will bring about $4 billion to the state and local governments. State leaders will have discretion over about $2.3 billion of that. Some are already pointing to broadband as one possible use.

Asked what might happen if another bill fails and the Legislature did not deliver some kind of gambling bill this session, Marsh did not mince words about the political implications.

“Well, I think there’ll be a mad dash next year to do something, because I think this issue is important to the people,” Marsh said. “You know, I’ve made it clear I’m not running for state Senate again, okay? But if I were running for office … I would want to know I got this issue to the people to make a decision on if I’m on the ballot.

“I wouldn’t want to be known as the guy or gal that kept it from going to the ballot to the people. I think it’s that important.”

Alabama Daily News reporters Mary Sell and Caroline Beck contributed to this report.