Alabama has been on the fence in regard to a legalized lottery industry for years. What has essentially been a stalemate has kept any gambling law from being passed since 1999, when voters rejected Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposed state lottery by 54% to 46%.
Most recently, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey assembled a dedicated group of professionals, politicians and community figures to study the proposition. This group, dubbed the Study Group on Gambling Policy, has been hard at work researching the community and economic impacts such an industry would have throughout the state of Alabama.
While COVID-19 put a halt to any sort of lottery legislation coming forward in the 2020 session, the new year may prove fruitful for proponents of the effort to establish an Alabama State Lottery.
Gambling policy group finds reasons for legalization
Among the most positive findings from the group is the estimate that such an industry would raise as much as $300 million a year in state revenues. Add the potential $400 million brought in from casinos and $10 million from sports betting, and there are many more ears turned toward what these findings have to say about job creation and budget boosting potential. The group believes legalized gambling industries would add as many as 19,000 jobs throughout the state.
As it currently exists, Alabama’s gambling infrastructure is a piecemeal approach that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of resources spent on regulation, enforcement and political infighting. A single authority to regulate gambling for all of Alabama could be just the thing to alleviate those headaches.
Most forms of gambling are currently prohibited in Alabama, save for three casinos operating on Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal lands and 16 counties that have approved bingo games. Dog and horse racing are also allowed in Jefferson, Mobile, Macon and Greene counties.
The most recent report, submitted by the Study Group on Gambling Policy on Dec. 18, 2020, refers to the many other states that have found success in regulated gambling industries, emphasizing what has worked well and what has not.
How a gambling bill could fare in Alabama
It will take a constitutional amendment at the state level to overturn existing laws prohibiting gambling, which means voters will ultimately have the final say.
The next legislative session begins on Feb. 2, 2021. This could put talks on hold as COVID-19 continues to rage on, and February is months before vaccines are predicted to be widely available.
Rep. Steve Clouse came close to being recognized for his sponsorship of a lottery bill in 2020 that received sponsorship from 70 of his colleagues in the 105-seat House. In Alabama, a ballot will be sent to voters only after it has received three-fifths support from both the House and Senate. That’s a total of 63 representatives and 21 senators.
While Clouse’s bill would not see a vote through the murk of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ivey’s appointment of the study group may have put the kibosh on any momentum regardless. It would be a shame, according to Clouse, who had hoped to leverage the high voter turnout of the November 2020 general election.
“I think that’s the best time to vote on it, during a general election,” Clouse said. “But we don’t have another one until November of ’22. So this year is not as time-sensitive. We could do it in the ’22 session.”
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Sen. Del Marsh, the Senate’s president pro tempore, brought up concerns regarding the lottery, the local bingo operations and the tribal casinos. Clouse agreed it would be worth considering the proposed compact with local tribes and the gaming industry.
On the topic, Clouse asserted, “It’s not a bad idea to try to do something comprehensive. The problem is the votes start falling off in the Legislature when you start talking about the comprehensive part. So, that becomes an issue then. I’m not saying you can’t get 63 in the House and you can’t get 21 in the Senate. I think it’s a possibility, but it gets close.”
Bingo, tribal casinos create patchwork of gaming laws
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton seconded the need for a comprehensive approach to legalized gaming in Alabama and felt the governor’s study group’s report will support those ideas.
Singleton is optimistic about the prospect, stating, “I would like to see the solution be lottery, gaming and sports gambling. What the bill is, how much taxes we are going to pay, all of that is going to be a legislative function, and we’re all going to sit down as men and women together, and hopefully we’ll put our input in and see, can we make it all work? What’s best for the state of Alabama?”
Singleton has close ties to the subject, as his district includes Greene County, which benefits considerably from electronic bingo. According to figures submitted by the Greene County Bingo Commission to the study group in June 2020, this includes $750,000 a year from bingo revenue that goes directly to supporting public schools and $600,000 a year that goes to the county hospital and nursing home. Municipal governments, the county commission, the sheriff’s department, jail, volunteer fire departments, Meals on Wheels and other programs all directly benefit from the legalized gaming policies already in place in Alabama.
This small pocket of the piecemeal gambling framework in Alabama is just one that could benefit from consolidation under one regulatory body. There are commissions for each of the 15 counties that favored electronic bingo between 1980 and 2004.
Despite voters expressing their views in favor of the games, state attorneys general have attempted to shut down electronic bingo throughout the state. Their argument has been that electronic bingo looks too similar to electronic slot machines. The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that slot machines do not fit the definition of bingo and are illegal.
Greene and Macon county advocates point to the machines already being used in the Wind Creek casinos owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. These games are legal under federal laws that allow tribes to offer electronic bingo in states that allow bingo in any form.
The pandemic has brought certain funding shortcomings and infrastructure needs into lawmakers’ view. One of the most glaring needs is that for broadband connectivity and infrastructure. Lottery revenue could be one source of funding to implement much-needed changes at the state level.
Singleton explains, “As we move closer to the session, I think you’re going to start to hear conversations about it, and then we’ll look at how we lay it out, how many licenses they give out, where will the casino be if, in fact, they’re going to be in the state. So, all those things are legislative questions that we have to answer. And I think, now that this task force has brought back some answers to some questions, that we’re ready to tackle those questions.”