Senate kills effort to start Alabama lottery, allow state casinos

Published 9:12 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Alabama Senate on Tuesday narrowly rejected a proposal to start a lottery and allow up to 10 casinos, ending the latest push to get the issue of gambling before voters for the first time since 1999.

The proposal by Republican Sen. Del Marsh fell two votes short of the 21 needed to get the proposed constitutional amendment through the 35-member Alabama Senate. Senators voted 19-13 for the proposal to authorize a state lottery, seven casinos locations as well as a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians for casino games at their three sites.

“I’m not convinced this issue is a dead issue. I think it’s one we’ll have to address sooner or later,” Marsh, R-Anniston, said after his bill’s defeat.

Alabama voters in 1999 voted down then-Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposed state lottery. Marsh said polling shows that Alabamians want to vote on the idea again.

“It was the people who were going to make this decision … I’m just really a bit surprised that we didn’t let them do it,” Marsh said.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who had supported getting the issue before voters, said she is willing to continue working on the issue if lawmakers do.

“Today’s vote by the Alabama Senate confirms more work must be done, because this issue is too important to not get it right. No doubt gambling is complex and challenging, but I remain committed to giving the people of Alabama the final say,” Ivey said in a statement.

Over the past two decades, gambling legislation in Alabama has failed under a fatal mix of conservative opposition to gambling and a turf war over which entities could have electronic gambling machines or casino games.

At least one senator is trying to resurrect a lottery debate this session

Republican Sen. Jim McClendon, who voted for Marsh’s plan, introduced a lottery bill moments after the defeat of Marsh’s legislation on Tuesday. Alabama is one of five states without a state lottery.

“People in my district want a dadgum lottery,” McClendon said. He said he expected the bill to be in committee in about a week.

Previous lottery bills have failed after getting engulfed in the larger issue of gambling, and Marsh said that’s why he believes it will take a comprehensive bill to win approval.

In the days and weeks before the debate, Marsh had expressed confidence that he had the 21 votes needed. However, he said he saw support chip away. He said one senator faced “peer pressure” to oppose gambling as a revenue source.

The 13 no votes were all from Republicans. Some Republicans had expressed discomfort with the idea of allowing casinos in the state.

“Lottery, I hear that a lot. I hear that a lot that people want to vote on a lottery yesterday. I’m receiving a tremendous amount of emails and phone calls opposed to casinos,” Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, said last week. Scofield voted against the bill.

Marsh’s original bill proposed establishing a state lottery and five casinos — one at four existing dog tracks plus a fifth site in north Alabama that would be run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. It also authorized a compact with the Poarch Band for casino games at their three existing sites that currently have electronic bingo machines.

Lawmakers on Tuesday added two additional sites to the bill after sites in Lowndes and Houston counties asked to be included. Marsh put Houston County in his substitute bill and an amendment was approved to include Lowndes.

Marsh proposed to use lottery revenue for college scholarships and other education needs. Casino revenue would be used to help expand broadband access in the state as well as to fund rural health services.

The Legislative Services Agency estimated the lottery would generate $194-$279 million annually for college scholarships awarded on a mix of need, merit and workforce needs in the state. The agency estimated the casinos would generate $260-$393 million annually from the 20% tax on gaming revenues,