The Alabama Legislature is about to wade back into arguments over gambling.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, filed a constitutional amendment Tuesday evening that would authorize a state lottery; establish five casinos in the state and allow sports betting. Proceeds from gambling would go to fund postsecondary scholarships and broadband expansion.
A Senate committee is expected to consider the amendment Wednesday morning. If approved by the Legislature, it would be sent to voters for consideration.
“I think the people in this state are ready to address this issue, and polling data shows they want to make a vote on this,” Marsh said Tuesday afternoon. “My job is to put together a piece of legislation that serves the needs of the state, controls gaming, and provides a revenue to accomplish things the people of Alabama want to see accomplished.”
A report issued in December by a commission formed Gov. Kay Ivey estimated that fully expanded gambling would bring up to $700 million to state coffers and create 19,000 jobs.
The calculus around gambling has always been complicated, involving with multiple factors, unknown variables and endless difficulty in reaching a solution. Marsh and other legislators have filed bills to address gambling in the past, only to see them fall apart.
Scholarships funded by the state lottery would be awarded based on “need, merit, and workforce needs in the state.”
Casinos would pay a 20% tax on their net gaming revenues. Money from the revenue and fees would be split between a Gaming Trust Fund (20%) the county government where the casino is located (3%), the local municipality where the casino is located (2%) and the state General Fund (75%).
In the General Fund, 65% of revenues would go to broadband (until the cumulative amount reached $1 billion); 25% to rural health care, and 10% to mental health services. After broadband funding reached $1 billion, the split would change considerably: 25% would go to the General Fund; 25% to rural health care; 25% would go to developing and maintaining statewide information technology, and 10% would be allocated for infrastructure projects in areas without gambling.
A state gambling commission would be created to regulate gambling and set rules for licensing sports betting. Gaming operators would be prohibited from making campaign contributions.
Marsh said he hoped to get the bill to the floor of the Senate on Thursday, but did not anticipate a vote. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said earlier on Tuesday that the odds of a vote this week were “low.”
Alabama’s 1901 Constitution forbids lotteries and games of chance in Alabama. What gambling exists comes from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a federally-recognized tribe that operates under federal law, or through local constitutional amendments. Those local amendments allowed dog tracks like VictoryLand and GreeneTrackCounty to install electronic bingo machines, like those at the Poarch Band facilities in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka.
But in recent years, the Alabama Supreme Court has made narrow readings of those local amendments, ruling that they forbid electronic bingo at the dog tracks. Attempts by local legislators to clarify the legal standing of the dog tracks, major employers in their counties, have clashed with the Poarch Band’s stated interest in having a uniform gambling law in the state.
That, in turn, has hampered efforts to bring a lottery to the state. Creating a lottery would require a constitutional amendment that needs approval of 60% of the Alabama House and Senate, and then approval by voters. Republicans have long been divided on whether to pass a lottery, and Democrats have made their approval of one contingent on shoring up the dog tracks. Those divisions sunk efforts to pass a lottery bill in 2016 and 2019.
The governor has no constitutional role in the amendment process, but she could negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band to allow slot machines and traditional table games at their facilities.