The Alabama Senate passed a lottery bill last week by a 21 – 12 margin. Now the future of a lottery resides in the House of Representatives, and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, has vowed to make it a priority.
Hallelujah! We’re going to have Powerball, Mega Millions and scratch-off tickets, right? No more trips to Pensacola for lottery tickets.
Probably, eventually. But that is not really where the action is going to be, and so goes the multi-dimensional issue of gambling in Alabama.
For decades, Alabama has lagged behind its neighbors on instituting a lottery. Back in 1999, then-Governor Don Siegelman tried. However, the unlikely duo of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, who wanted to protect their own gaming interests across the state line, and religious organizations, who opposed gambling on moral grounds, rallied to stop a referendum that would have worked toward instituting a lottery.
Ever since that moment, those in charge of state government over the years have been reluctant to pursue a lottery again.
This time, it won’t be religion that stands in the way of a lottery, but all of the other gaming interests in Alabama.
Let’s assume the House passes a bill, and the two chambers of the legislature can reconcile language that would put a referendum on the 2020 general election ballot for the public to decide whether or not the state gets a lottery. Then what happens?
There will likely be a showdown between what the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who operate three casinos in Alabama, and the dog track interests, particularly the VictoryLand track near Tuskegee and Greenetrack near Eutaw.
You may ask yourself, what does this have to do with a lottery? Not a whole lot, except that the dog track owners saw a lottery referendum as an opportunity to legalize their gaming, which for now is more than parimutuel greyhound racing, but electronic bingo machines as well.
That effort, led by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, was rejected by a Senate committee. The one that the Senate passed last week was spearheaded by Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, and would create a “paper lottery.” It does nothing for the dog tracks.
Without any legal relief for the dog tracks in the Albritton bill, they will be vulnerable to action by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who has hinted at a crackdown if legislative efforts don’t provide any relief.
All of a sudden, the lottery referendum on the 2020 ballot has an opponent with deep pockets in the dog track owners.
Meanwhile, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is in favor of the current proposal, at least that is what the tribe says publicly. Tribe Vice Chairman Robbie McGhee points out the Creek’s Atmore casino is minutes from the Alabama-Florida state line, where lottery tickets are for sale, yet the casino currently sees no impact from the lottery.
Some suggest the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is in favor of a lottery because a legal lottery will strengthen the case for the tribe to expand to Class III gaming. The argument is that once Alabama legalizes a type of Class III gambling (like lotteries) in the state, under federal law, Class III gambling becomes permissible on tribal land. This will allow the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to petition the Department of the Interior for Class III gaming at its casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery.
McGhee insists this is not the case since parimutuel gambling already exists in Alabama, which he contends is considered a game of chance under federal law.
Nonetheless, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians does oppose any carve-outs for the dog tracks.
That is the landscape. Big interests oppose the lottery. Assuming the Albritton bill becomes law, expect a lot of money to be dumped into any resulting referendum. (And all this just for Alabama to get a lottery, right?)
If we’ve learned anything from the 2018 election cycle, lazy consultants seem to think the way to win over Alabama voters is to use President Donald Trump as a guiding principle. The more Trumpier, the better.
Here’s what to watch for: an ad campaign telling the public that being pro-lottery is the same as being anti-Trump.
Trump will be at the top of the ballot in 2020. In Alabama, that is certain to drive a lot of voter turnout since the voters in the state are generally most concerned about national politics.
How will this feat be pulled off? Political consultants can be creative.
During the 2017 special election cycle, ads ran telling the public U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, one of the most conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, was a toady of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. We were also told former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was anti-Second Amendment during his runoff campaign against Luther Strange. Also, there was an ad campaign circulating on the internet that if someone voted for Roy Moore, people would know because votes are public.
None of those ads were true. But it does show that all bets (ha!) for the truth are off in an election campaign in Alabama. The same will likely apply in this convoluted and confusing lottery/gambling campaign.
The public’s focus will likely be on the 2020 presidential election next year. But the undercard bouts in Alabama, which include a U.S. Senate race and a lottery referendum, will be worth watching.
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