Alabama’s Gambling Referendum in Jeopardy Unless House & Senate Can Resolve Disagreement on Details

Alabama residents could get their first chance since 1999 to vote on gambling expansion in a referendum this year, but only if the state’s two legislative chambers can agree on which forms of gambling should go on the ballot. After months of preparations, the House passed two comprehensive bills in February. These included a lottery, sports betting, and full casino gaming for tribes and up to ten commercial operators. However, the Senate returned a scaled-down version a month later, removing sports betting and commercial casino licenses.

Now, the House has rejected the Senate’s proposal, which might mean there will be no gambling expansion referendum at all. The last chance this year is an upcoming meeting in which three representatives from each chamber can try to reach a compromise.

Many of the state’s political leaders, including Gov. Kay Ivey and House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, have said it’s time to let voters decide. But first, these two factions in the legislature will need to come to terms.

Missing Funding Means No Support From House Dems

Last week, the House voted to reject the Senate’s modified version of the bill. The Senate’s changes weren’t purely subtractive: the alternative bill includes pari-mutuel betting and historical horse racing machines instead of sports betting and commercial casinos. For Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Smiths Station, the sponsor of the House bills, the biggest issue with the Senate’s version is it splits lottery revenue three ways. The House version would assign 100% of the revenue to education.

By removing sports betting and commercial casinos, the Senate also stripped funding from programs like mental health services and a rural healthcare program similar to Medicaid. The latter was instrumental in swaying House Democrats, without whom the bill couldn’t pass. House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels has said he will no longer support gambling expansion if it lacks that funding.

Blackshear claims that his proposal could generate as much as $1.2 billion in tax revenue annually and that the Senate is leaving between $400 million and $500 million of that on the table. In addition, the state would lose $1 billion in immediate revenue from the commercial casino licensing process. On the floor, he said that House conference members need to have detailed conversations with their Senate counterparts and added:

They had it for three weeks, we worked on it for 15 months, and I think there are some details we can provide to them that may help them understand why we sent the package that we did to them.

Can Lawmakers Find a Common Ground?

The final hope for gambling to go to voters is a conference meeting. In a statement, House Speaker Ledbetter said he was hopeful lawmakers would find an agreement. Ledbetter, who’s been vocal about addressing illegal gambling in Alabama, added:

If one thing has been made clear throughout this process, it’s that the people of Alabama want and deserve an opportunity to vote on this issue.

Rep. Blackshear said he’s standing firmly on the comprehensive approach to gambling expansion in Alabama. He acknowledged the big difference between the two chambers’ bills but was hopeful they could agree. He said,

I think we’ve got to identify what that middle ground is first because it’s such a distance between the two. They’re not even close bookends. So we’ve got to first off establish what that middle ground looks like and then have those conversations.

Blackshear added that the House doesn’t know when it will appoint conference members. He called for the Senate to appoint theirs first.

On the other hand, some Senate members believe in finding a compromise. Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, who carried the bill in the Senate, said that some Senators have taken a hard line on sports betting and casinos. However, he said that there’s still a lot of middle ground. Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, is more optimistic.

He said there’s a way forward and several ways to find a solution, including bringing back the House proposal. He mirrored Blackshear’s comments about leaving money on the table. Singleton also pointed out that COVID-related federal funding will stop soon, and gambling can fill the gap in the state’s budget.

About the Author

Chav Vasilev

Chav Vasilev

After years of managing fast-casual restaurants, Chav turned his passion for sports and occasional slot wins into a career as an iGaming writer. Sharing his time between Europe and the US, he has been exposed to betting and gambling for years and has closely followed the growth in the US. Chav is a proponent of playing responsibly and playing only at legal online sites. When not writing, you will find him watching and betting on sports, especially soccer, or trying to land the next big bonus on a slot.
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