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Alabama Legislators Weigh In As Lottery And Casino Bill Nears Vote

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State Sen. Del Marsh has put together what he calls a comprehensive gaming proposal to expand gambling markets in Alabama.

While Marsh was confident he had the votes to get his bill passed as early as February, he insisted on delaying its introduction to ensure the language addressed concerns from those legislators who were openly undecided on the topic. Namely, Marsh’s focus narrowed to the parts of the bill addressing casino legalization. Several legislators openly supported a stand-alone lottery bill and predicted one would be passed immediately in the Senate.

State Senator and Senate Rules Chairman Jeb Waggoner said as much during an appearance on Alabama Public Television’s “Capitol Journal” in late February. In an excerpt from the program, Waggoner stated, “There’s still a lot of questions among the Senate membership, the Senate leadership. I think Del was wise postponing it a few days, carrying it over. It’s really complicated. I mean, if it was a simple lottery bill, I think it would have passed in great haste.”

Waggoner’s apprehensions reside in how widespread the casino and other legalized gambling markets would be throughout the state. He addressed that casinos already exist on tribal lands. However, public casinos are a point of contention in the deeply religious state. Gambling has long been controversial in Alabama, but senators are warming up to the idea as reports confirm the substantial revenues the state could generate and use to fund public programs.

In his television appearance, Waggoner went on to say, “Whatever passes, there is a vote of the people. That’s where it will really be decided if we take on the issue of expanding gambling in Alabama. But we understand the governor is willing to sign a compact with the Indians. They have four facilities in Alabama. This would allow them to have one more casino up in north Alabama. They would have a total of five. But it is really complicated. It’s far-reaching, and it’s a big step for Alabama when you start talking about casinos and table games and slot machines, and do we really want to go there? But every state around us — Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia — they all have at least lottery. Some have more. A lot of Alabamians are going across state lines to play the games. It’s estimated — whatever we have, if any — if it is simple lottery, we’re talking about $200 to 300 million a year in revenue. If we go the full route, we’re talking about maybe $700 to 800 million, which is huge for our budget.”

Marsh met with Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama House leaders last week to iron out details and address concerns over the number of casinos in the state. Ivey has made it clear her preference would limit the state’s number of casinos to five in total. Marsh believes that’s within the sweet spot he’d outlined in his bill, with the proposed number of casinos in Alabama ranging between five and seven.

Before Marsh’s bill had undergone slight revisions at the end of February, the Legislative Services Agency estimated that legalized lottery, casinos and sports betting markets would raise net revenue of $450 million to $670 million. These revenues would, in part, be used to fund scholarships for students pursuing high-demand career fields in the state of Alabama and beyond. Additionally, money collected from license fees and the proposed 20% tax on casino revenues would be used to support the expansion of broadband internet access throughout the state and contribute to the State General Fund, rural health care and mental health care, among other programs that serve the public good.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, access to broadband internet has been a huge focus for state legislators and regulators. Recently, the Senate passed SB 215, which would establish the Alabama Digital Expansion Authority. The authority will be tasked with oversight, expansion and accessibility of high-speed broadband services throughout the state.

On the topic, Marsh stated, “I’m just very excited that finally, we have taken up a piece of legislation that truly addresses broadband and looks at spending serious dollars on broadband expansion.”

While it appears that Marsh will have the support he needs in the Alabama Senate to get his bill passed, the House is another story.

Marsh has been proactive in soliciting opinions from House representatives to ensure his bill is palatable to both legislative bodies. He also wants to ensure buy-in from both sides. He asserts, “I would like input from those House members so that they will claim some authorship in it as well. I want to know that the House is engaged and has ownership in this as much as the Senate does. And I think it’s time for that to happen.”

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon is anxious to see what gets passed to the House from the Senate, though he remains cautious in expressing support from the Republican-majority House. When asked about the prospect of legalized gambling in Alabama, McCutcheon stated, “If we were talking about a lottery, then I would say the numbers go up and members are more inclined to vote for just a lottery. When you add all these other issues into the gaming discussion, then I can’t tell you for sure where those votes are going to be.”

The next step is to bring the lottery and casino bill, SB 220, to the Senate floor for a vote. While Marsh remains confident of its passage, only time and the votes will tell if the legislation in favor of Alabama lottery and casino markets will move forward.

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