I’m not sure if there’s been a more obvious example of the role special interests play in our State Legislature than the “comprehensive” gaming amendment passed by the Senate that’s now winding its way through the House.
Why do I say special interests have helped shape this legislation? The first sign is the amendment makes no logical sense. If any one of us were able to craft legislation to legalize gaming in Alabama, why in the world would we limit the state to just six casinos?
Does it make sense to get into the casino business with the intention of not really being competitive with our Mississippi neighbors who are pounding the stuffing out of us right now? The Magnolia State currently has 36 casinos; we would top off at nine.
The legislation that passed the Senate will allow casinos at the dog tracks in Mobile, Birmingham, Greene County and Macon County. There would also be a casino at the Crossing at Big Creek bingo hall in Houston County and the sixth would be located in either DeKalb or Jackson County in the northeast part of the state.
The way things are set up, an Alabama Gaming Commission would issue licenses for the casinos through a competitive bidding process, but current operators would have the right to make a final, highest bid. In the case of the proposed casino in DeKalb or Jackson, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) would have the right to make the final bid.
PCI currently operates Mobile Greyhound Park, which means two of the six casinos are theirs for the taking. And the bill also paves the way for PCI to implement full casino gaming at its three existing casinos, so the tribe would control five of the nine casino sites. I don’t think there’s anything keeping them from purchasing any of the others as well.
That’s nothing against PCI. They run great resorts, like Wind Creek in Atmore, and one of the representatives told me recently something akin to that would be created where the Mobile Greyhound Park is, should voters pass this amendment. I’m all for PCI opening as many casinos in Alabama as they want, but that shouldn’t block out the Ballys, Harrahs and MGMs of the world.
But for whatever reason, the Alabama Senate continues pushing legislation that will do exactly that. The claim has been that the only way any casino and sports betting bill could make it out of the Senate is if it was attached at the hip to the lottery. Why? Because it’s pretty clear the people of Alabama want a lottery. Maybe it’s not as clear they want more casinos.
Or maybe that’s just what we’re being told. Limiting casinos certainly picks winners and losers and locks us into building them in places not necessarily in the best interests of the nearby communities.
If one were choosing a spot in Mobile County upon which to build a world-class gaming resort, I’m not so sure the location of the dog track would top the list of potential spots. It’s not hard to imagine converting the floundering GulfQuest National Maritime Museum into a casino and turning that financial loser into a winner for downtown Mobile. I’ve also always thought the GM&O Building had a casino-ish look as well.
But why stop there?
There could be opportunities for waterfront casinos in South Mobile County that could help transform that area. And Baldwin County’s beaches are among the nicest anywhere. While I’m not trying to figure out a way to make it even harder to get to the beach, Baldwin County has lots of land on which to build resorts that would be a skip and a jump from beaches that make Atlantic City’s and Biloxi’s look … well … not so great.
Any thought of such things is out the window, though, if the House passes this legislation and voters approve it next year.
It’s looking more and more likely the House will pass the combined gaming bill and send it to voters, but I’m not so sure we will support it. I’m sure the thought process among legislators goes something like: “People will vote for the lottery and since the casinos will affect such a small number of places, most folks won’t care about that part.”
Maybe it will work out that way, but it also seems like it could work to sink the entire program — lottery and all. If the amendment is perceived as having been angled to benefit just a few companies and places around the state, it could fail. There’s a lot of time between now and the referendum for such issues to be discussed across the state. If that happens, we won’t even get the lottery going.
The House would be better off ditching the combined bill and putting forth either two or three new amendments. Have one for the lottery, another for casinos and another for sports betting. Or combine the casinos and sports betting into one. And take the training wheels off of the casino amendment.
There’s no reason the Alabama Gaming Commission couldn’t handle vetting and approval of new casinos, as is done in other states, including the one just to our left. Limiting the number of casinos puts the state’s gaming industry at the mercy of those running the few spots allowed. If they don’t want to make things top-notch or have quality entertainment, it might be much easier to operate that way when there’s no real competition nearby.
As we’ve seen in Biloxi over the past 25 years, competition can take you places you never thought possible. I was there when gaming started in Mississippi, housed in tiny paddle-wheelers. I doubted it would ever amount to much. Now the city has been transformed and a $1 billion entertainment venue is in the works to complement the many other things happening there.
We’ll assure ourselves nothing like that can ever happen in Alabama by passing legislation that limits where we can have casinos. But as long as it makes the right folks richer, who cares if the state is left behind, right?
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