The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) have unveiled a plan that would pay Alabama millions of dollars to let the tribe expand its gaming operations and obtain exclusive gambling rights in the state, but some leaders think the state’s persisting issues with gambling need to be ironed out in Montgomery first.
Last week, PCI launched Winning for Alabama, a “comprehensive plan” for gaming in the state that, among other things, would establish a “clean” lottery, expand the gaming options PCI can offer, add two additional gambling facilities and create a revenue-sharing program with the state government.
According to PCI’s own estimates, its plan would send about $1 billion to state coffers in the first year — mostly from $725 million in exclusive gambling licenses — and a projected $350 million in annual revenue shares for new facilities and expanded gaming options at those already operating.
All of PCI’s gaming properties are located on land held in trust by the federal government, and as such, they are considered sovereign and are not subject to Alabama’s prohibitive gambling laws. The tribe is currently only authorized for Class I and II gaming, which includes bingo and non-banked card games.
Under the proposed plan, new developments would be added in Birmingham and Northeast Alabama, and — along with PCI’s existing establishments in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka — would be allowed to offer Class III games for the first time. Class III games include black jack, craps and other table games, and PCI has also indicated it wants to open Alabama’s first sports book as well.
The tribe has proposed similar “compacts” with the state in the past, but those haven’t found the necessary support in the administrations of the two previous Republican governors. While there haven’t been many substantive discussions with state officials yet, PCI’s Tribal Chairwoman and CEO Stephanie Bryan has already begun pushing the proposal in hopes of getting public input and gaining public support.
“We have long believed that the economic power of gaming should be strategically harnessed to create opportunities for everyone who lives in Alabama,” Bryan said in a press release announcing the proposal. “This plan does that, and we are committed to making sure that our positions on gaming and our commitment to helping improve the quality of life in Alabama are clear.”
The need for clarity comes after a secretive group began targeting PCI with ads and statements in the press that criticized its gaming operations for not paying state taxes, putting millions into state and federal campaigns and expanding and opening businesses in other states — including some it does pay taxes to.
That group, Poarch Creek Accountability Now (PCAN), was launched in October and is led by former State Sen. Gerald Dial. However, after an initial splash in state media, PCAN has remained relatively quiet and its website appears to have been down for several days. It was as recently as Nov. 19.
Still, the tribe seems to have taken a defensive position, labeling the group’s claims as “misinformation.”
So far, state officials haven’t had too much to say about PCI’s proposal. While previous compact plans have heavily involved the governor’s office, Gov. Kay Ivey said the Legislature would need to be involved in any decision about Winning for Alabama because it includes a state lottery proposal.
“The governor, as she has previously stated, is open to Alabama having a clean lottery,” Ivey’s office said in a statement. “This proposal goes further and would need to be thoroughly discussed and fully vetted. Ultimately, this is a question for the legislature, but [she] is open to hearing any recommendations.”
State Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, whose district includes PCI’s reservation and one of its gaming properties, has worked with the tribe on legislative efforts in the past. Most recently, he sponsored the unsuccessful clean lottery bill the tribe backed during this year’s legislative session.
Albritton didn’t offer an opinion on the specifics of the current PCI proposal, but did tell Lagniappe the legislature has a number of issues it has to work out before realistically considering any compact.
“We can’t get a compact unless we have the lottery question answered, and we can’t get a lottery unless we get those exclusivity issues settled and figure out how we politically deal with other entities out there that are already operating,” Albritton said. “In-staters, out-of staters, broke folks, rich folks — everybody is involved in this, everybody has a piece of this pie. Somehow, we in the legislature have got to deal with these issues or else we’ll be stuck with nothing like we are right now.”
Other entities Albritton referred to are gaming operations at the state’s four existing dog tracks, which have been a flashpoint in the state’s war on electronic bingo machines. While the Alabama Supreme Court has determined electronic bingo machines to be “illegal gaming devices,” authorities in Lowndes, Greene and Macon counties argue local constitutional amendments legalized them.
Albritton said he felt allowing those constitutional amendments to be passed by voters was a mistake because it set up different rules for different areas and has created a lot of confusion. He believes if that type of gambling is going to be allowed anywhere, it should be organized under one statewide rule.
“We’ve got to recapture that sovereignty because we’ve got to be able to determine who does what and when,” Albritton said. “And the biggest difficulty I see for PCI is that the plan they’re currently proposing is based on exclusivity, which means part of the compact agreement would be shutting those existing places down. That’s not going to be a very popular with some legislators from those areas.”
That does seem to be the case so far. In fact, State Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, has already filed legislation to protect electronic bingo at VictoryLand dog track in Shorter through a constitutional amendment. So far, though, PCI has given mixed messages on what might happen to those locations.
In previous interviews, Bryan has rejected the idea PCI is seeking a state “monopoly” on all forms of gaming, yet the Winning for Alabama plan clearly states the tribe is seeking “exclusive gaming rights in the state.” Lagniappe reached out to a representative of PCI seeking input on this story, but did not receive a response as of this publication’s press deadline.
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