Gambling bill stalls in Alabama House as tempers flare

Published 5:50 am Friday, May 7, 2021

Lottery and casino legislation stalled in the Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday night after negotiations failed to muster enough support, leaving the outlook for the gambling bill doubtful with just a day remaining in the session.

The demise of the legislation led to finger-pointing over who was responsible and an unsuccessful effort by Republicans to switch the bill for a GOP-backed lottery proposal. Republicans accused Democrats of making last-minute demands on the bill. Democrats criticized what they described as a bad-faith push by Republicans to change out the bill.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said he believes the outlook for the bill is “doubtful” with only a day remaining in the 2021 session.

“Tensions were high because people have been working so hard. Everybody was just really upset at the way things were. There was no effort to pull anything behind anybody’s back. We were trying to get a bill on the floor,” McCutcheon told reporters.

Democrats criticized a push by Republicans to switch the gambling bill — after a day of negotiations — for a GOP-backed lottery bill.

“If you don’t have integrity when you’re dealing with gaming, you need to give it up. And what I have seen in this room tonight, integrity is nowhere around,” Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, said.

The casino and lottery bill needed bipartisan support to win approval because of some conservative members’ opposition to gambling. Sticking points emerged over locations and requests from Democrats to sharpen vague language that proceeds could be used for Medicaid expansion, McCutcheon said.

As the bill remained short of needed votes, Republicans pushed to bring a lottery bill to the floor instead and pass it without support from Democrats. The House Rules Committee brought a proposed calendar that included the bill and tried to set a quick vote, although that was later abandoned.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels said Democrats weren’t involved in conversations about that bill. “We weren’t privy to those particular conversations on our side of the aisle. That was something that was quite disturbing. It was a surprise to us just like it was a surprise to most members in the chamber.”

The move also angered some Republicans opposed to gambling. Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, said they were pushing a quick vote on the bill that “nobody has read.”

McCutcheon said lawmakers were trying to be responsive to constituents’ desire to vote on a lottery bill.
Alabama is one of five states without a lottery. Alabamians last voted on a state lottery in 1999 when voters rejected a lottery proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman. Republican Rep. Chris Blackshear of Phenix City, who handled the Senate-passed bill in the Alabama House, said Alabamians want to vote on a lottery, but said putting together a bill has proven difficult.

“If you’ve ever watched one of those football quarterback contests when they’re having to throw and the targets is the back of a four-wheeler, that’s what we’re doing right now. By the time we get there, the target moves,” Blackshear said Thursday morning before the bill fell apart.

The original legislation, which would have to be approved by both lawmakers and state voters, would establish a state lottery to fund college scholarships and nine casinos locations that would be located primarily at existing state dog tracks and sites owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

That bill faced opposition from a mix of Republicans opposed to legalized gambling and lawmakers arguing the bill picks winners and losers by naming casino locations. Some opponents argued it is unfair to exclude existing electronic bingo locations in Greene and Lowndes counties operating under current constitutional amendments.

The final day of the legislative session is May 17.

“It’s going to be difficult to get it passed now,” McCutcheon said of the gambling bill.