Alabama state legislators will likely be called upon to consider the expansion of gambling in the state by the end of the year, but voters — who last had the opportunity to vote on gambling in 1999 — will have the last word.
The Governor’s Study Group on Gambling Policy, a group formed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to study the state’s policies on gambling, held its fourth meeting on June 5 and plans a public comment meeting on Friday, June 26, at 9:30 a.m.
“Based on the questions asked and comments made by several committee members [during meetings of the Governor’s Study Group on Gambling Policy], it is my impression that [the study group] will be recommending some form (or forms) of gambling expansion to the governor and to Alabama legislators by the end of this year,” Joe Godfrey, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), told The Alabama Baptist in written comments.
Any proposed amendment to the state constitution to enact a lottery would have to be approved by Alabama voters.
Committee history and goals
Gov. Kay Ivey announced Feb. 14 the formation of a 12-member study group to look into the state’s gambling policies. The group’s chair is former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange. The group has met four times this year, all but the first via videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
An executive order creating the group said its purpose is to “produce detailed and accurate factual findings to allow the Legislature and the people of Alabama to make an informed decision about the future of gambling in the State,” and produce a final report — including any recommendations — by Dec. 31, 2020.
The group has heard from numerous parties on both the perceived benefits and dangers of expanding gambling in the state.
In the group’s fourth meeting on June 5, members heard from citizens and officials representing Greene County, where certain forms of gambling are currently allowed, including “charity bingo.”
Former Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom spoke in favor of Greene County’s charity bingo and said that it was of “vital importance” to the county.
Don H. Wood, a certified public accountant and owner of two farms in Greene County, said that for many community organizations in the county, a substantial part of their budget is provided through the monies that charity bingo allocates to local causes each month. That money comes from fees assessed on the electronic bingo machines.
“Today, since the enactment of the box fees, there have been approximately $22 million dollars spread among these organizations, and I can safely say that if that money was taken out of these organization’s budgets, they would not exist as they are today — and most of them wouldn’t exist at all,” said Woods.
Marcia Pugh, CEO of Greene County Health Systems (GCHS), and Charlie McAlpine, mayor of Forkland, echoed Woods’ argument and shared how the charity bingo box fee allocations that GCHS and Forkland receive are vital to their respective budgets.
William Somerville, a shareholder and attorney with Baker Donelson in Birmingham and representative of River’s Edge, an electronic bingo facility in Knoxville, Alabama; Lewis Benefield, president of Victoryland and the Birmingham Race Course; and Arthur Mothershed, vice president of business development for Wind Creek Hospitality, a company owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that operates multiple casinos in Alabama, shared with the study group their views that expanding gambling in Alabama would benefit the state economically without bringing about any notable social costs such as increased crime.
Godfrey challenges those who have argued that expansion of gambling would be good for Alabama. Not only do casinos and gambling organizations disproportionately prey on the poor, he said, they often fail to provide the economic boons that are promised which leads pro-gambling advocates to seek further loosening of gambling laws over time.
“ALCAP opposes all and any gambling expansion in the state of Alabama. Gambling is not only immoral because it preys upon the poor but because it is based on deception. Gambling bosses — and, in the case of state-sponsored lotteries, government officials — try to convince people to throw away their hard-earned money on lottery tickets, most of which are worthless, or pump their money into slot machines that are rigged so that ‘the house’ always wins. They make promises they know are destined to fail,” Godfrey said.
Purpose of study group
The governor’s study group is asked to answer five questions:
- “What is the current status of gambling operations in Alabama?”
- “What are the possible forms of gambling that could be allowed in Alabama?”
- “What are the benefits of allowing gambling — whether economic, fiscal, social political or otherwise?”
- “What are the costs of allowing gambling — whether economic, fiscal, social, political or otherwise?”
- “What regulatory structures and practices have other states adopted to maximize the benefits of gambling and minimize the costs of gambling?”
The study group’s introductory in-person meeting was held March 5. At that meeting, members signed ethics pledges and heard from Ivey’s general counsel, Will Parker, about the state’s current gambling laws and how the Poarch Band of Creek Indians operates in Alabama.
Parker said that while Section 65 of the 1901 Alabama Constitution restricts the state’s legislature from establishing “games of chance,” there have been constitutional amendments that have granted various exceptions to this restriction, according to alreporter.com.
Gambling opponents speak
At its second meeting on April 20, held via Zoom videoconference, the study group heard from Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, and John Kindt, professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.
Bernal and Kindt, both nationally recognized opponents of legalized gambling, argued that expanding legal gambling would hurt Alabama’s economy — which is already in poor fiscal shape. Bernal and Kindt added that gambling would most likely negatively impact the poorest citizens of the state.
“The gambling study committee also heard from someone representing a gambling addiction recovery organization. That organization receives funding from casinos and state-sponsored lotteries (in other states), and made several statements that were inaccurate,” said Godfrey. “ALCAP made it clear to the Gambling Study Committee members that we did not endorse that individual or the organization he represents.”
Lottery reps speak
In its third meeting on May 15, the study group heard from a representative of Powerball, a lottery game that is currently played in all U.S. states but Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah.
Such a lottery could produce the state of Alabama a net profit of nearly $170 million per year, according to an al.com article from 2019, when state lawmakers were considering a bill legalizing a lottery. That bill eventually died.
Godfrey refuted those statistics, noting lotteries and other forms of gambling don’t live up to the economic hype.
“Over time, lotteries and casinos fail to bring in the revenue they promised, so [gambling operators] keep coming back to the state lawmakers, asking for new forms of gambling in order to ‘prop up’ their failing businesses. State legislators get addicted to the revenue from gambling, and as it declines — and it always does — they feel a need to expand gambling even more until the state is on the verge of bankruptcy,” Godfrey said.
Godfrey cited New Jersey, Illinois and California as examples of states that have raised taxes to make up for deficits caused by gambling. However, the failed promises of the pro-gambling lobby are also on display in Alabama, he said.
“The Birmingham Racetrack promised the people that if they would approve that facility, the Birmingham City Schools would never ‘want for money’ again. The Birmingham Racetrack has, to my knowledge, never been profitable. They have had to continually expand their gambling activities to survive. They started with horse racing, then dog racing, then video gambling devices, and now they are continuing to push for expansion of their various forms of gambling,” said Godfrey. “It is never enough,” Godfrey said.
‘Only real opponents will be churches’
“A great deal of money from gambling enterprises and out-of-state lottery management companies, as well as slot machine manufacturers and software programmers, will be pouring into campaign coffers, supporting gambling expansion in Alabama,” Godfrey said.
The only real opponents to the expansion of gambling in Alabama will be churches, he said. However, especially during the current pandemic which is negatively affecting giving, it will be difficult for churches to compete with the amount of money that pro-gambling individuals and organizations will likely raise.
“Since the governor’s gambling policy study committee will only be making recommendations and not establishing policies, churches and pastors need to focus on contacting their state representatives and state senators, and encouraging them to oppose all gambling expansion efforts in the state,” said Godfrey.
“Church members need to educate themselves on the issue of gambling and then contact their legislators in large numbers to let them know of your opposition. It will be easier to stop gambling in the Alabama Legislature than at the ballot box,” he said.
Public comment meeting
EDITOR’S NOTE — The Governor’s Study Group on Gambling Policy will hold a public comment period during its next meeting on Friday, June 26, at 9:30 a.m. The meeting will be conducted via Zoom videoconference.
Anyone wishing to provide public comment must submit a copy of written remarks by email to SGGP@governor.alabama.gov no later than Wednesday, June 24.
In addition to submitting written remarks, speaking requests should include the speaker’s name, telephone number, and city and state of residence.
Speakers will be limited to three minutes, and requests to speak will be granted on a first-come, first-serve basis. All written comments will be included in the Study Group’s final report to the governor.
A meeting agenda will be posted on Alabama Open Meetings Act webpage prior to the meeting. The link to the meeting is https://algov.zoom.us/j/6555984534.