Legislators head back to Montgomery today, reminded Alabama gambling laws ‘crystal clear’

By Maggie Walsh
The Alabama Baptist

There is this idea that there’s confusion about gambling in Alabama,” said Eric Johnston during the sixth meeting of Gov. Robert Bentley’s Alabama Advisory Council on Gaming. “But the law is crystal clear.”

In October 2016 — when Bentley announced the creation of the council — the governor said the issue of gambling is “such a quilt work of local constitutional amendments around the state … so it’s a confusing issue that’s not being resolved.”

Johnston, a Birmingham lawyer who also represents the Alabama Policy Institute and Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), presented a report to the council that responded to Bentley’s statement: “There is no ‘confusing quilt work’ of Alabama law on gambling,” the report read. “To the contrary, the (Alabama Supreme) Court has clearly and consistently explained our law in many published decisions over the past seven years.”

Specifically in Macon, Greene, Lowndes and Houston counties — where constitutional “bingo” amendments prompt the alleged confusion — the Court has repeatedly concluded in separate rulings that Alabama law doesn’t allow electronic gambling or slot machines.

But if the law is so clear, why do even legislators find the state’s stance on gambling “thoroughly confusing,” as Rep. John Knight, D-District 77, said during the legislative special session in August 2016?

Because, Johnston said, while the law is clear, there’s confusion “about what they (Alabamians) think the law is.” According to the report this confusion has two sources: casino operators and local law enforcement in the four counties with constitutional amendments.

If casino operators can keep the public confused by claiming to have machines that are “compliant” with Alabama laws, then they can continue to run a profitable business. Hand in hand with that if local law enforcement “fail to enforce Alabama law (or simply cooperate with casino operators)” it misleads “both the press and the public to think that the reopened casinos may be operating legally,” the report reads.

At the end of the day as far as current Alabama law is concerned “all that is left is for the law of this State to be enforced,” to borrow the words of the Court.

The question isn’t, “Is electronic bingo legal?” Johnston said. The question is, “Do we want to have gambling in Alabama?”

“That’s the bottom line.”

Gov. Bentley’s gambling advisory council extends deadline, hears from voters

By Maggie Walsh
The Alabama Baptist

Gov. Robert Bentley’s Alabama Advisory Council on Gaming didn’t deliver any recommendations to the Legislature by its original deadline of Jan. 31, but it has heard from various passionate representatives on both sides of the issue in its six meetings since Nov. 3.

At the Jan. 26 meeting, council member and Alabama Sheriffs Association Executive Director Bobby Timmons said, “If it’s good enough for the other people, for Indians, it’s good enough for the native Alabamians.”

On the other side of the argument Joe Godfrey, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program, said, “When government sponsors gambling lottery governs the state, making the state government prey upon its own people.”

Ken Allen, director of missions for DeKalb Baptist Association, spoke against the harmful effects of gambling and shared stories of addiction he witnessed firsthand when living in Louisiana.

“How many stories will there be like that as we expand gambling?” he asked.

Differing timelines

And Iva Williams, of Birmingham, urged the council to act sooner rather than later.

“You don’t need a lot of time to make up your minds on this issue,” Williams said. “Most of you already had your mind made up when you came here. … We need additional revenue in the state … any level of gaming would be appreciated.”

The council received a deadline extension from Bentley with a June date but council chairman and Alabama Baptist Clinton Carter said a report won’t be that long in coming.

“Our plan is to put eight different options together,” he said. “The options will range from no gambling at all to the status quo to (all forms) of gambling and will list the pros and cons of each option.

“We want to deliver a summary that is fair and balanced and move as quickly as we can but this is too important an issue to move too quickly,” Carter said.

Timmons spoke against the council taking too much more time to report back to the Legislature, however, saying it would be procrastination.

“I pray we will do what we need to do before the Legislature dies,” he said, advocating a statewide vote on the issue.

Council member Sen. Bobby Singleton, D–District 24, said he too is in favor of bringing a proposal up for statewide vote but agreed indepth research and presentations from the various experts on the issue have been important to educate the council members.

The council has heard from representatives of the Department of Revenue, Poarch Band of Creek Indians, VictoryLand Gaming and Greyhound Park in Shorter, GreeneTrack in Eutaw, Alabama Policy Institute, Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute and Stop Predatory Gambling, among others.

The council members — who seem to be about evenly split on those for and against expanding gambling in the state — did come in with their own opinions and some with specific agendas but all of that has been “on the table” as the group has done its work, Singleton said.

Purpose of council

The council was created to focus on evaluating state and local gambling laws (see story, this page), tax revenues from existing illegal gambling operations in the state and tax revenue structures from gambling in other states.

While the council does its work, Bentley said it was “safe to say” there would be no raids on VictoryLand or GreeneTrack, where illegal electronic bingo gambling is going on currently.

Bingo machines on Indian reservations ‘not legal,’ Birmingham lawyer says

By Maggie Walsh
The Alabama Baptist

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) operate casinos in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka on reservation land. One of the solutions for Alabama’s struggling General Fund is to enter into a compact, or legal agreement, with PCI where gambling is restricted or prohibited in other parts of the state in order to promote the success of the reservation casinos. The State, in turn, would be allowed to tax the gambling revenue.

But there’s a key piece of information that legislators are missing, said Birmingham lawyer Eric Johnston, who shared with Gov. Robert Bentley’s Alabama Advisory Council on Gaming on Jan. 26.

Because gambling on Indian reservations is under the regulation of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) and subject to federal law, legislators have been working under the belief that “the gambling on Indian reservations is ‘a given,’ so we might as well enter into a compact and tax it,” Johnston said.

However, federal law depends on state law with the general principle being that an Indian tribe must be treated equally with non-Indians, Johnston explained. Basically what the laws allow for non-Indians also must be allowed for Indians.

And since the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that electronic bingo machines are illegal in the state so must be the electronic bingo machines on Alabama reservations, according to Johnston’s report.

Skewed track record

Clinton Carter, council chairman and Alabama Department of Finance director, asked Johnston, “Is it your opinion that [the] machines they’re operating aren’t in line with Alabama law?”

“Correct,” Johnston said. “They’re not legal.”

So why are they still in operation? Because it’s regulated by NIGC, which has “a track record that favors tribal activity,” and NIGC approved the machines, according to the report.

There also are complications to creating a lottery under state law.

Under Alabama law a lottery is any game of chance. However, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act a lottery is Class III gaming. If the Legislature approves a general lottery then it would allow Indians to engage in any form of Class III gambling, which includes card games, roulette, etc.

“Authorizing a lottery of any description will open the floodgates of open casino gambling at all tribe venues,” the report reads.

Gambling-related bills profiled for the session which begins Feb. 7:

HB 6 (sponsored by Rep. Alan Harper, R-District 61) — Constitutional amendment authorizing Legislature to provide lottery by general law.

HB 10 (sponsored by Rep. Craig Ford, D-District 28) — Constitutional amendment directing portion of lottery revenues for college scholarships. Related to and dependant on HB 11.

HB 11 (sponsored by Rep. Craig Ford, D-District 28) — Constitutional amendment establishing lottery and regulatory commission. Allows gambling at racetracks “where pari-mutuel wagering is currently legal.” Allows governor to negotiate a compact with Poarch Band of Creek Indians. Creates Lottery Trust Fund.

HB 16 (sponsored by Barbara Boyd, D-District 32) — Constitutional amendment allowing a tribal compact for gambling.

SB 28 (sponsored by Tom Whatley, R-District 27) — Fantasy Sports Contests Act; authorizes the creation and operation of fantasy sports contests through licensing to be administered by the secretary of state. Also creates Fantasy Sports Fund.

The question isn’t, “Is electronic bingo legal? The question is, “Do we want to have gambling in Alabama?”

Birmingham lawyer Eric Johnston