Last week, State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, unveiled his “comprehensive” gaming proposal, which is considered a satisfactory plan to all of the players in Alabama’s decades-long gambling conundrum.
Marsh, who earlier this month stepped down from his post as the Alabama Senate president pro tempore, seeks to rectify a situation that goes back to the middle of the last century.
If you have ever wondered why Alabama lags behind even other Southern states in getting with the program on gambling, it goes back to Albert Patterson’s assassination in 1954 in Phenix City.
Patterson had won the Democrat nomination for Alabama attorney general. This was when Alabama was a one-party Democrat state, so he was likely to be elected AG.
He ran on “cleaning up” Phenix City, which at the time was known for organized crime, including corruption, prostitution and illegal gambling. He was shot three times while walking to his car after work.
Patterson’s assassination led to a declaration of martial law from then-Gov. Gordon Persons, with the Alabama National Guard assuming control of the city and the crime ring running Phenix City was busted up forever.
Ever since then, the stigma of organized crime’s association with gambling has been hard to overcome in Alabama, and that, in part, is perhaps why Alabama has been a laggard on gambling compared to surrounding states.
Once the Phenix City experience became a distant memory, other obstacles arose for Alabama’s pursuit of legal gambling.
Knowing the entire state would not agree to legalized gambling, legislators in some areas pursued legal gaming through local legislation and local amendments. Also, in the 1980s, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians became a federally recognized tribe, allowing them to open their own gaming facilities on tribal land as per federal law.
The result of this mishmash of gaming through loopholes and federal law in Alabama has been the primary hang-up for any hopes for a lottery since then-Gov. Don Siegelman tried in the late 1990s.
Siegelman’s effort failed with an assist from out-of-state gambling interests. Since that moment, Alabama has had legalized games of skill (bingo, horse and greyhound racing). Still illegal are games of chance (lottery, table games, etc.).
If Alabama were to pass a constitutional amendment that legalized gambling and created a lottery, the fear for existing non-tribal gaming in Alabama is they would be out of business. Federal law dictates Native Americans can have whatever legalized gaming exists in the state of the tribal land, which might mean “electronic” lottery machines, or what would appear to be slot machines to the untrained eye.
Over the last year, the heads of these so-called gaming entities have been working toward a so-called comprehensive agreement.
To them, it is do or die. This year is the third year of a quadrennium. Historically, little gets done in fourth years as elections are on the horizon.
If Alabama is going to have a lottery and other gaming, it has to happen through an act of the Legislature in 2021, or it will not likely be considered again until 2023.
If it seems this legislation is being rushed, it is. A sudden COVID outbreak could mean another abbreviated legislative session.
For Alabama voters to have an opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment that would legalize casino-style gaming and sports betting and institute a lottery, it has to pass both chambers by a three-fifths vote.
The three-fifths vote has been the obstacle, given the Democratic caucus has typically rallied around the representation for Macon and Greene counties, where the two dog track casino facilities that stand to lose the most from a paper lottery-only bill are located.
However, through negotiation from all the parties involved, Marsh has managed to get an acceptable agreement that would be enough for a three-fifths vote passage.
Casino gaming and sports betting would be legal at five designated sites, four already existing, including Mobile Greyhound Park. A fifth would later be determined in Alabama’s northeastern corner, which is seen as a location central to Birmingham, Huntsville, Atlanta, Chattanooga and Nashville.
If it seems like a long round-about way to get to a point where it is easier to get a Powerball ticket, it is. Like so many other things, Alabama is paying for its past sins, which in this case goes back to the middle of the 20th century.
If you’re wondering about the odds of this potential legislative feat being accomplished, they are better than they have ever been under these circumstances. Old rivalries have gone by the wayside.
All of the parties have finally recognized after 20 years of waging a proxy war through the corridors of power in Montgomery a stalemate was the best one could hope for.
The amount of money left on the table to fight an unwinnable war became too much, and we have finally made it to the “take what you can get” stage.
Is it the best deal for Alabamians? Probably not. Is it better than no deal at all? Probably.
Coming to a ballot near you in 2022: Legalized gambling and lottery, yes or no.
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