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Revamped gambling package goes to House floor

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MONTGOMERY — A wide-ranging gambling package advanced in the Alabama Legislature Tuesday and is expected to be considered on the floor of the House of Representatives on Thursday.

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.

Three pieces of legislation: A constitutional amendment that would go before voters in November 2022 and two enabling bills fleshing out the details of gambling policy and enforcement procedures, each passed through their respective House committees Tuesday.

State Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, who is carrying the legislation in the House, said his expectation is to have the package considered on the House floor Thursday, the second to last day of the session.

“We’ve got some good solid legislation that, No. 1, truly regulates gambling for the first time, that realizes state revenue from gambling for the first time, and reduces the number of gambling locations," Blackshear said. "We calculated that there are currently 28 places where gambling goes on. This would take that number down to nine.”

Under a revamped proposal introduced Tuesday, 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 percent would be up to the Legislature to appropriate toward "capital or other non-recurring expenses," 40 percent would be earmarked for "enhanced health care services" and 10 percent would be divided among counties and cities also for "capital or other non-recurring expenses."

For all gambling revenue, up to .5 percent would be set aside for initiatives to help problem gamblers.

“We’re going to put all these ideas to the body, have some good wholesome debate about it and let the votes fall where they may," Blackshear said.

While the bills moved through committee, there was vocal opposition, both from those who generally oppose gambling and those whose current operations were left out of this plan.

Former State Sen. Phil Williams of the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, told a House panel the plan would amount to "no bid casino contracts" for those who have been operating outside the law.

Those representing smaller, non-Greentrack casino operators in Greene County complained that they would be put out of business. Similarly, State Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville, said the bill unfairly excludes the White Hall casino in his district.

"The gambling bill in its current form is not allowing me to do what I was sent here to do, which is represent my constituents," Lawrence said at the public hearing. "The question is, why? Nobody can tell me why."

Blackshear responded to Lawrence by saying the plan had to be limited in scope and that only the dog track casinos were grandfathered in. White Hall and the other Greene County operators don't have dog tracks.

Gov. Kay Ivey, who's gambling study group initiated this year's legislative action, said the version now moving in the House "is a good bill.”

“I am pleased that after many discussions with the Legislature, I believe we have found a path forward to once and for all address gambling in Alabama," Ivey said in a statement to ADN. "Let me be clear, this is not something that everyone will walk away with 100% of what they would prefer or want. However, I believe this is a true bipartisan effort and a true compromise where everyone can feel confident that we are sending the best possible plan to the people of Alabama, giving the voters the final say."

"The proposal in its current form limits gambling to select destinations, allows us to clean up the current rampant, illegal operations and will allow Alabamians to be the beneficiaries of this activity."

Other changes in the House plan from the Senate version include:

— Writing the Alabama Gambling Regulatory Commission and its enforcement authority into the constitution;

— A more strict ban on gambling interests offering gifts or campaign contributions to public officials;

— Raising the tax on casinos and sports book operators from 20 percent to 23 percent;

— Instituting a tax of 5 percent on casino winnings of $5,000 or more that would go toward periodic bonus checks for education and state employee retirees;

— Instituting a 5 percent tax on lottery winnings of $600 or more that would fund community and rural fire protection.