Alabama legislators will soon be considering a comprehensive gambling expansion package. Rep. Andy Whitt will be among the sponsors of a bill he expects to be filed in the Alabama House of Representatives within the first two weeks of the legislative session. The session starts on Feb. 6, so the 2024 Alabama gambling bill should begin its legislative journey by about mid-month. Whitt’s plan will include sports betting, lottery, and retail casinos. It will also create a regulatory body with the tools to crack down on the unauthorized gambling currently plaguing the state.
Whitt’s plan emerged from a pro-regulation ad hoc committee he participated in last year to explore the possibilities for gambling regulation in the state. He spent over a year traveling across the state to get a first-hand sense of what legal and illegal gambling is occurring.
His conclusion: It’s the “Wild West” in Alabama, at least as far as gambling goes.
That’s why the primary goal of the potential gambling bill is to address Alabama’s problem with illegal gambling. He’s not the only one who feels that way. House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter emphasized in November that ridding Alabama of illegal gambling is a priority. Ledbetter has previously stated he won’t stand in the way of a good gambling bill.
Ledbetter’s potential backing is the key to the success of the 2024 bill. Previous attempts to legalize gambling in the state have failed in the House. If the House passes a bill, it will likely pass in the Senate, which has had more success with gambling bills in the past. In addition, Governor Kay Ivey has expressed support for gambling regulation.
As it requires a constitutional change, if the bill passes through both legislative chambers, it will go to voters in the fall.
What Do We Know About The Bill?
Whitt told the Alabama Political Reporter (APR) that the comprehensive bill will include sports betting, lottery, and retail casinos. He said that a comprehensive bill is the best way forward, and Ledbetter and Ivey agree. The representative said the specifics are still not ironed out, but the bill will be similar to a comprehensive bill passed in the Senate over two years ago.
That legislation called for a retail and online lottery plus gaming operations in six counties. It also would have established a Gaming Commission and addressed gaming at the Type II tribal casinos operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
An economic analysis of that bill estimated it would’ve created over 12,000 permanent jobs. The projections were that it would generate over $700 million in tax revenue annually. However, given the rise in popularity of online lotteries and more frequent billion-dollar jackpots, revenue could be much higher than $700 million.
A good example is South Carolina, which has a population similar to Alabama’s and is likewise at the conservative end of the political spectrum. The state lottery generated $2.4 billion in ticket sales in 2023, resulting in $598.3 million for education.
Lawmakers Uniting In Calls For Regulation
Whitt’s 2024 bill is different than previous attempts and may stand a better chance of passing, though it still faces an uphill battle. More lawmakers in the state have begun to realize that the status quo isn’t working. Current gambling laws are spare and ambiguous and have opened the door to a large, unregulated, illegal market.
Whitt says he has visited tens of unregulated gambling facilities, including 12 on one single-day trip. He said these illegal parlors are everywhere, often in gas stations or convenience stores. Because of Alabama’s vague laws, local police have varying interpretations of what’s permitted, and their de facto policies can differ from county to county.
Whitt added that he’s received many calls from law enforcement and lawmakers insisting the establishments in their towns are legal, while Whitt says they are not. This confusion also extended to the electronic bingo machines at tribal casinos until the Alabama Supreme Court intervened.
Whitt’s message is that regulation is the most crucial feature of his upcoming proposal.
Gov. Ivey and House Leader Ledbetter’s support could sway even more conservative lawmakers to vote for the bill. If it passes, the newly formed Gaming Commission will have an unusual task. Before regulating any new forms of legal gambling, it may have to begin by battling the black market.
An example of optimism for the bill comes from Howard Glaser, the Global Head of Government Affairs and Legislative Counsel for gaming technology supplier Light & Wonder. He posted his assessment on LinkedIn:
Alabama Farmers, Business Council Emerge as Gambling Opponents
That optimism notwithstanding, the bill isn’t without its enemies. The Alabama Farmers Association (ALFA) and the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) have indicated that they will oppose it. Both organizations hold a strong influence in the state and have previously stated that they’re against gambling.
Bonus Managing News Editor Alex Weldon points out that resistance from such economic associations isn’t uncommon:
Small business owners have often emerged as opponents of various types of gambling bills in other states, typically because they’re relying on some existing form of legal or gray market gambling to get customers in the door. That could mean ticket retailers opposing an online lottery, VGT operators opposing online casinos, or ‘gray machine’ operators pushing back on attempts to ban them.
Assuming unregulated gambling parlors in gas stations and convenience stores are as common as Whitt says they are, fear of the economic consequences of a crackdown may be underlying this pushback.
APR reports that at least 10 lawmakers have recently been contacted and “pressed hard” by ALFA representatives to vote against the anticipated bill. The lawmakers told APR that the ALFA representatives made it clear they would make reelection efforts “difficult” for those voting for the bill.
That said, former Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield recently became an executive vice president of BCA. Scofield has previously supported lottery expansion. Under his leadership, the Senate passed the gambling bill years ago.