Alabama legislative session to include (yet another) push for gambling expansion

Published: Jan. 10, 2022 at 10:03 AM CST
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THEODORE, Ala. (WALA) – The 2022 legislative session kicks of Tuesday with a familiar agenda item – gambling.

Gaming proposals in one form or another have been offered for more than two decades, with none crossing the finish line. Supporters got closer than they have in a long time last year, with the state Senate passing a bill to create a state lottery and gambling casinos. But it fell apart in the House of Representatives.

State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), who represents all or part of five counties in southwest Alabama, said he plans to introduce gaming legislation again. But it will differ from last year’s effort, which drew criticism over its designation of specific locations for casinos. Some parts of the state felt cut out.

“The biggest stumbling block we had last year was the aspect of picking and choosing – telling folks who’s gonna shut down, and who isn’t; where you can or where you can’t. We’re only gonna do this and do that,” he told FOX10 News on Friday. “That that created more obstacles that we needed to have.”

Albritton said the latest iteration is a two-tier approach. First, lawmakers would create a commission to regulate gambling that already exists.

“Let’s find a way that we can bring in everybody that’s involved with this industry,” he said. “Let’s gain control of them, and let’s start regulating and taxing them right away.”

Then, voters would get a chance in November to approve a constitutional amendment allowing a wide range gambling – everything from a statewide lottery to sports betting to slot machines and other casino games.

Rather than limiting where gambling operations could go, applicants would be able to petition the gaming commission. They would also have to get permission from the local county commission, a measure that Albritton said would be a safeguard for areas that do not want gambling.

Albritton said the bill – which has yet to be written – will include language making the gambling commission contingent on passage of the constitutional amendment.

This week, the Alabama Track Owners Association started running an ad statewide comparing the tax and jobs impact of gambling to an auto plant. Instead of giving away $700 million in tax incentives, the ad claims, the state could generate that much every year and create 12,000 jobs.

“The equivalent of three auto manufacturing plants, if they just let us vote on a gaming and lottery bill this November,” announcer intones in the ad.

The same group aired ads over the summer to build pressure to include gaming in a special session called to discuss Alabama’s prison crisis.

That effort failed, but the group’s leaders expressed optimism for success for the regular sessions. Robert Kennedy Jr., a spokesman for the association – which includes Mobile Greyhound Park in Theodore – said much of the “heavy lifting” already has been done by senators in passing the bill last year.

“When it went over to the House, it went over relatively late. And quite frankly, we believe – and if you talk to folks in the House, I believe they would tell you, as well – that they simply ran out of time,” he said.

The racetrack group favors locating casinos at the existing tracks, which Kennedy said are Alabama-based businesses that already have invested in the state.

“Having said that, we are well aware that the Legislature is gonna have to compromise and that there may end up being some compromises that are not necessarily things that we advocate,” he said. “But ultimately, the decision should reside in the hands of the people.”

Albritton said his proposal could generate as much as $800 million. Where to spend that money also will differ from last year’s proposal, which was heavy on broadband investment. But Albritton said the state already has put a lot of money into bringing high-speed internet to rural areas, and the federal government has poured money into that, as well.

“My intent is to take the bulk of the money that we have from gaming and direct that toward mental health issues,” he said. “By that, I mean re-establish long-term care for mental health.”

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