Alabama’s Gambling Compromise Dies on the Finish Line as Senate Bill Sponsor Refuses to Budge

There will be no gambling referendum in Alabama this year. Thursday, May 9, was the last day of the state’s legislative session, and time has now elapsed, with the final version of the gambling bill still just one Senate vote short of making it to the Governor’s desk.

In principle, any of the 15 Senators voting no could have changed their minds and passed the bill. However, The Montgomery Advertiser places the blame squarely at the feet of Sen. Greg Albritton of Baldwin County.

Despite being the original sponsor of the Senate’s version of the gambling bill, Albritton balked at any compromise with the House.

Both halves of the legislature wanted to establish a gambling regulator, a lottery, and Class III tribal gaming. However, the House wanted to offer voters the possibility of sports betting and commercial casinos as well. The Senate rejected those possibilities, suggesting off-track betting and historical horse racing as alternatives for the commercial sector.

Although the House rejected the Senate’s proposal, the prospects of reaching a compromise looked good. A bicameral conference committee convened to strike a deal. The resulting bill looked more like Albritton’s proposal overall, except that it would have allowed slots and other electronic casino games at seven commercial venues in the state.

Even that proved to be a bridge too far. With 20 Senators in favor, a conventional bill could have passed. However, the need for a constitutional amendment raises the bar to 21 votes, and Albritton made it clear he would not be the 21st.

Although Gov. Kay Ivey encouraged lawmakers to pass a gambling bill this year, the Advertiser reports that she dismissed the possibility of calling a special session to allow time to wrangle the extra vote.

Competing Interests Sink Gambling Bills

Alabama’s story echoes similar outcomes in other states that share gambling between commercial and tribal interests. Tribal groups tend to be highly aggressive about pursuing or defending exclusivity over gambling, as it’s one of the few reliable revenue streams available to them. Conversely, commercial gaming interests have significant lobbying power and resist any expansion to tribal gaming unless there’s something in it for them.

What appears to have happened in Alabama is that the commercial bingo parlors and former dog-racing tracks had the ears of legislators in the House, while the Poarch Band of Creek Indians held greater sway in the Senate.

It’s unclear whether Albritton himself was the stumbling block. When sending his version of the bill to the House, he said that “some Senators” had taken a hard line against commercial gambling expansion. However, at the time, he expressed the hope that some middle ground could be found.

Poarch Band Remains a Big Fish in a Small Pond

The Poarch Band has three casinos in the state, which operate under the Wind Creek brand. These are limited to Class II, or bingo-based gambling. That includes slots-like electronic bingo machines, though the state has cracked down on such devices outside tribal lands. So, the Poarch Band now enjoys an effective monopoly on the closest thing to slot machines currently available in the state, which it would be understandably reluctant to surrender.

Conversely, Alabama commercial gaming interests are on the ropes. There were few legal options to begin with and even fewer now. Aside from the electronic bingo crackdown, Alabama’s greyhound racing industry ran its last race in the spring of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic may have hastened that, but it was already a foregone conclusion. All but one track had already shut down by that point amid flagging revenue and souring public sentiment about the sport.

While waiting for Alabama gambling expansion that doesn’t jeopardize its exclusivity, the Poarch Band has been seeking opportunities elsewhere. After Pennsylvania legalized online casinos, it bought the former Sands Bethlehem, converting it to a Wind Creek property and launching its own online gambling platform. More recently, it bought the Magic City Casino license from West Flagler Associates to establish a gambling footprint in Florida.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
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