Lottery and casino legislation moves forward

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Alabama voters are one step closer to voting on whether to create a state lottery for education and casinos like the one the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) want to build in either DeKalb or Jackson counties due to proximity to Chattanooga.

Earlier this week, a constitutional amendment by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, passed the Alabama Senate by a vote of 23-9. On Thursday, SB319 was referred to the House of Representatives committee on Economic Development and Tourism.

In Alabama, a constitutional amendment must be passed by a 60% vote in each house of the state legislature during one session to appear on the ballot during the November 2022 general election. A 1999 referendum to create a state lottery and to earmark the resulting revenue for use in education failed to pass 54% to 46%.

McClendon’s bill originally did not include casinos, but six new resort properties are in the version that passed the Senate, including current operators in Birmingham, Mobile, Greene County, Macon County and Houston County. Enabling bills spelling out the specifics about how the lottery and casinos would operate, how the funds will be used, and other details were passed in advance of McClendon’s bill.

Gov. Kay Ivey would need to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Revenue from a lottery would be directed toward college scholarships distributed based on merit, need and workforce conditions.

Net revenue from casinos would expand high-speed internet, rural health care and mental health care across the state, according to the bills.

Currently, 45 states allow lotteries, including all four that border Alabama. The bill establishes a state gaming commission to regulate gambling, which local legislators have said is already happening without citizens benefiting from millions in generated licensing fees.

In a March interview with The Times-Journal, Wind Creek Hospitality VP of Business Development Arthur Mothershed said PCI – the only federally recognized tribe in Alabama -- has “put out feelers” on multiple parcels of land in DeKalb and Jackson counties where a resort could be constructed. He said they find northeast Alabama very attractive because of its proximity to Chattanooga, where a lottery exists but casinos can’t operate. It’s likely that a site would be located alongside a major artery like I-59 or US- 72.

He estimated a Northeast Alabama casino could employ about 2,500 people during the construction phase and generate another 2,000 jobs operating the gaming, hotels, restaurants and facilities. Mothershed said they would possibly build between 500 and 1,000 new luxury hotel rooms to accommodate guests like their existing Wind Creek casino properties in Montgomery, Wetumpka, and Atmore.

Voting in favor of the legislation were Dist. 8 State Sen. Steve Livingston and Dist. 10 State Sen. Andrew Jones, both of whom represent DeKalb County.

“We want to control it and capture the revenue off of that,” Livingston said during a recent Zoom meeting with local officials. “The one thing that people have asked for overwhelmingly is the right to vote. There are 27 Alabama counties that border Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida, where gambling is legal and regulated. 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.”

In the same virtual setting, Alabama House Majority Leader Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said he thought Alabamians deserve the right to vote.

“I’ve told senators… we’ll see what we can do with it,” Ledbetter said during that call. “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… 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. 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.”

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