Alabama state senators to begin debate on bingo on Wednesday
Alabama state senators adjourned today to look over proposed legislation that would tax and regulate gambling in the state. The lawmakers return to the State House on Wednesday morning to begin debate.
Today, the Senate narrowly approved the list of bills they would debate, recessed briefly and then adjourned.
Republican state Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale said he does not believe the Democrats who support the measure have the votes to pass it, which is why he believes they adjourned. But the senator believes the margin is by one or two votes.
"I am not confident of anything," Beason said.
When the sponsor of the legislation was asked by the Montgomery Advertiser if he has the votes to pass the legislation, Democratic Sen. Roger Bedford said "I hope so."
"I have said from the beginning that we will handle the gaming issue right, not fast," Bedford said in a later statement. "Openness and transparency are critical to the success of this legislation. I asked the Senate to adjourn today to give every senator the time to read and analyze this bill. I firmly believe that if we address every concern we will build the kind of voting coalition needed to pass this bill."
Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, said on Tuesday that he did not believe those supporting the measure have the votes.
Beason said he supports letting people vote, but he said Bedford's legislation is not a straight up or down vote on whether people want gambling in Alabama. Beason wants an item on the ballot that lets people decide whether they want it before moving forward with how to operate it in Alabama if it is approved.
Bedford said his legislation would establish one of the toughest gaming commissions in the nation and would tax the proceeds at 27 percent, three times the rate of Nevada and New Jersey.
"If you are going to have gambling, it ought to provide jobs and it ought to provide revenue," he said.
Several states assess a tax of more than 45 percent on gross receipts, according to the governor's office. Las Vegas and Atlantic City also have full-blown gambling establishments and have a much broader tax base, according to Riley's office.
Sen. Hank Erwin, R-Montevallo, called the tax rate "chump change for the privilege to rob this state blind."
Jeff Emerson, communications director for Riley, said the changes Bedford is offering to the bill, including the higher tax rate, are not enough to remove the corruption from the bill.
"It still legalizes Las Vegas-style slot machine gambling in Alabama for the first time in our state/s history," he said in a statement after Bedford announced a substitute version with the higher tax rate. "It still grants a select few casino bosses no-bid contracts, giving them a government granted monopoly to operate casinos in Alabama."
Beason said the bill does give certain operators in the state a monopoly. The legislation allows 10 points of destination in the state where electronic bingo would be allowed, but many of those locations are where establishments are already located including Macon County, Houston County, Lowndes County and Greene County.
"There is no favoritism in the bill," Bedford said. "They all pay the same application and license fees."
The legislation also includes a moratorium that would prohibit those who serve on the gaming commission, which would be created in the bill, from working in the industry for five years after their service.
While some legislators believe allowing casinos in certain areas gives the current operators there are monopoly, other lawmakers plan to fight to try to get a point of destination in their district.
"I am not willing to open this state to every small business having 50 machines in there," Bedford said.
Barron said Riley, Erwin and others are seeking to deny people the right to vote.
If the legislation is approved by lawmakers, then voters would decide its fate in the November election.
"This is not a vote for gambling or against gambling," Bedford said. "This is a vote to let the people of Alabama decide this issue."
Supporters of the legislation said that the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that would be generated would be used to help education and Medicaid.
Several actions have kept the profile of gambling and electronic bingo high including raids and attempted raids by Riley's Task Force on Illegal Gambling, rulings by the Alabama Supreme Court and several of the establishments shutting down.
Riley and his supporters believe the machines used to play electronic bingo at places including VictoryLand in Shorter, Country Crossing near Dothan and facilities in White Hall and Greene County are slot machines that are illegal in Alabama.
Riley and the commander of his task force, Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr., have said no one is above the law and should not be allowed to continue illegal activity.
Supporters of taxing and regulating gambling believe the machines are allowed by local constitutional amendments. They also question why Riley is targeting the facilities, some of which have been open for years, late in his second term.
Barron and Sen. Larry Means, D-Attalla, said stopping the operations would not eliminate gambling in the state because there are three casinos operated by Indians, which are under federal jurisdiction, and they do not pay taxes.
Means said people in his district want an opportunity to vote.
-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen