Lawmakers say gambling bill likely to be resurrected

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Legislation to regulate gaming is expected to come up again in Montgomery this week, two local lawmakers predicted in a Monday Zoom call hosted by the Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce and DeKalb County Economic Development Authority.

Alabama House Majority Leader Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and Dist. 8 State Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, addressed bills that could lead to the construction of a Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) casino.

Both Ledbetter and Livingston said Alabamians deserve to vote on it. The last time the issue was on the ballot in 1999, voters rejected a constitutional amendment to create a state lottery for education.

“I would not be surprised if we don’t see that come back this week, and I think the chances of it getting out of the Senate have improved,” Ledbetter said. “I’ve told senators if they’ll send it to the House, we’ll see what we can do with it. But it’s very important for people to understand that we’ve already got gaming in our state. We don’t have the ability to regulate it like we should. The governor’s Study Group on Gambling Policy wants to set up a gaming commission so we can properly regulate it.”

He said the state receives none of the revenue that’s generated because the casinos fall under federal jurisdiction. A compact between the governor and the tribe would change that.

“On day one, we would potentially get between $100-$200 million right off the bat in tax money that’s already being generated by those casinos that we’re not currently receiving,” Ledbetter said. “There are a lot of challenges and opposition to it. There will be a lot of conversation, which there should be. I don’t think you can ever go wrong by letting people vote.”

Ledbetter linked the additional funding to possibly expanding Medicaid, which he has opposed in the past because it requires annual funding.

“The gaming legislation would certainly give us an opportunity, although I’m not committing to anything without carefully studying it,” Ledbetter said. “We are talking about money we haven’t had. [More revenue] changes how we would look at what we’re able to do. We’ve lost over 14 hospitals in our state, so we’ve got to be really cognizant of that. We’ve lost so many rural hospitals, in fact, that we do not have providers in those communities. Local pharmacists have become the only ones who give any kind of medical advice. It’s important to take a look at that and see which direction we want to go.”

Livingston agreed that more funding could stimulate the local economy.

“The Times-Journal had an article not long ago that talked about 2,500 jobs that are tourism and hospitality jobs in the neighborhood of $20 an hour,” Livingston said, referring to a recent interview with Wind Creek Hospitality VP of Business Development Arthur Mothershed in which the PCI spokesman previewed a potential luxury resort with hundreds of hotel rooms to be built adjacent to a four-lane interstate like I-59 or US- 72 due to proximity to the Chattanooga market. It could include a world-class spa, gourmet culinary studio, infinity pools, movie theatres, fine dining restaurants and more amenities.

“That’s roughly about a $250 million investment they’re talking about making,” Livingston said. “With those numbers, I’ve got to vote for that. I’ve got to support it.”

Livingston claimed 135 illegal gambling machines have been confiscated in Alabama in the first quarter of 2021 within districts that voted against the earlier bill that failed by two votes.

“There are 27 Alabama counties that border Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida, where gambling is legal and regulated,” Livingston said. “How much money are we losing in gasoline and groceries they’re buying while they are across state lines spending their money there? It’s a matter of regulating what’s already happening. You can pick up your phone right now, bet on sporting events and they can’t stop you.”

Livingston said he’s personally never bought a lottery ticket, but he recognizes that gaming attracts people out of DeKalb County to places like South Pittsburgh, Tenn.

“We want to control it and capture the revenue off of that. The one thing that people have asked for overwhelmingly is the right to vote,” he said.

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