Back door gambling bills bad for Alabama

Published 9:50 pm Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It was all coming to a head. I knew I would have to play a role. I did not expect to play the central role. I did not want to play any role. However, new realities moved in from several directions. Sometimes the squeeze of reality makes us do what we don’t want to do.

It’s the Greene County gaming constitutional amendment, masquerading as a local constitutional amendment. It is not local but has far-reaching impact across the state. I had to step into a central role. Sometimes the squeeze of reality makes us do what we don’t want to do.

I did not want to be involved in the fight over the Greene County bill. I work with the sponsor, Senator Bobby Singleton, on various matters. I really like him. Also, we are both members of the Senate Democratic Caucus and the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus. We had an encounter over a Greene County local bill eight years ago, and it took a long time for our relationship to heal. I knew the bill was dangerous, but I hoped someone else would stop it.

The bill has several impactful provisions that would allow Greenetrack, a private entity, to have lifetime gaming license with an obvious monopoly in Greene County. It moves from the charity bingo concept to private corporation bingo concept. It would put three other charity operations out of the bingo business. All this would be in the Alabama Constitution. That’s bad enough, but that’s not what moved me. The bill also contains provisions that would allow Greenetrack to contract with other entities as long as Greenetrack owned or leased the premises. This provision is not limited to Greene County. This proposed constitutional amendment, masquerading as a local bill, would allow gaming all over the state controlled by one private entity. This would adversely impact bingo in Lowndes County, which is in the Senate district I represent.

The bill came up for consideration. Senator Bobby Singleton was at one podium. Senator Greg Albritton of Bay Minette was at the other podium. I relaxed, saying to myself, “The extended debate (filibuster) is on.”

After a few minutes of dialogue, Senator Albritton announced that he would not filibuster the bill and, “others want to talk.” He looked around at me. The circumstances had changed drastically.

Meanwhile, I had introduced a local bill to protect bingo in Lowndes County. It was assigned to the wrong committee. I then introduced a second bill. It was assigned to the wrong committee again. I went to the podium for a point of personal privilege. I explained to the Presiding Officer and members of the Senate what had happened with the first two bills. I introduced a third bill, and it was assigned to the wrong committee. Clearly something was up within the context of these realities.

I went to the podium in the well of the Senate. Senator Singleton had offered an amendment that he said would make certain that gaming was limited to Greene County.

However, the amendment did not limit the bill to Greene County. We were still dealing with a bill that would impact the whole State of Alabama. I commenced extended debate.

I started to speak. I was going strong. It was not long before a petition to close debate was filed. The Presiding Officer called on Senator Singleton so I could not speak during the 20 minutes between the filing of the petition and the vote.

I did not think they would get the 21 votes required to cut off debate because we Democrats do not vote cloture.

But this was about gambling, and most Democrats joined some Republicans to vote cloture. Still, as I counted, it looked like they would be one vote short. Then another Democrat walked toward the desk and pointed to his eye, meaning a yes vote. They got exactly 21 votes. We had lost the first round.

The vote on the pending amendment that did not do anything was called. It got 22 votes. They won the second round. I said to myself, “Hank, you did your best.” I recognized how much power is behind gambling in just one county. When we are dealing with gambling statewide, the power is massive.

As we were voting on final passage of the bill, I tried to count the votes as they were called out, but my effort was half-hearted. I lost count. Then the desk announced the results, 17 ayes and six nays with one abstention.

The bill needed 21 votes because it was a constitutional amendment, so it failed. It was a victory for the people.

However, I know that the victory is just temporary. Gambling is powerful, and with so much money at stake, the proponents will not let up. I expect efforts to revive the bill when the Senate reconvenes Tuesday afternoon. We just have to do our best.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against gambling. I am against back door bills to statewide gambling. If casinos were legalized in Alabama, they could produce as much as a billion dollars from licensing fees on the front end and hundreds of millions every year.

We could properly fund Medicaid, expand Medicaid, and increase funding for education. We could do so much for so many. Sometimes the squeeze of reality makes us do what we should not do.