Gambling bills among unfinished business for Alabama lawmakers at spring break

Two different lottery proposals from Republicans await Alabama lawmakers when they return from spring break next week.

Mobile County Rep. Chip Brown presented his plan last week and received summary committee approval two days later. It calls for a vote on the November election for a lottery. It would be a traditional lottery, with tickets sold at licensed retailers for multi-state games such as Powerball and Mega Millions, instant games, and other commission-approved games.

The other proposal, from Atmore Senator Greg Albritton, calls for a lottery, five new casinos, two satellite casinos, sports betting and nationwide regulation of gambling. There would be a total of 10 casinos which would include three electronic bingo casinos now operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery which could offer the full range of casino games. Electronic bingo halls currently operating in some counties would be closed. Albritton’s plan would also go to the voters’ vote in November, if approved by the legislature.

Albritton’s bill was also quickly approved by committee but did not make it to the Senate vote.

Both plans face obstacles with only seven session days remaining in the 30-day session. They would need the approval of three-fifths of the senators and representatives to go to vote for the electorate.

In their final days, lawmakers must also finish work on state education and general fund budgets, which are at record levels this year, in part due to the flow of billions in federal COVID-19 relief funds into Alabama’s economy in recent years two years.

Two of the most controversial bills still in play have passed a chamber. It would be criminal for doctors to provide transgender minors with drugs, hormones and puberty suppression surgeries to help them through the transition.

The other would ban public schools from teaching “divisive concepts” related to race, religion and gender.

Both bills have strong support from most Republicans and opposition from most Democratic minorities.

The session will resume on March 29th.

As lawmakers adjourned last week to begin spring break, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said he hoped they would use some of the time to study Brown’s lottery bill, with people in their districts to speak and prepare for a census of employees when they return.

McCutcheon said he wants some assurances Brown has enough votes to pass the measure before it goes to the House.

“We want members to look at the law that the committee passed, talk to their districts, talk to members, and look closely at what the caucuses think, when we come back and see how many votes there are, to see if we can make a difference,” McCutcheon said. “Because with just a few weeks left, we’re in a difficult time here.”

There are lotteries in 45 states, including the four that border Alabama. Alabama voters have not commented on a lottery since Gov. Don Siegelman’s plan was rejected in 1999.

A tax note accompanying Brown’s bill estimates that a lottery would generate between $198 million and $285 million in net annual revenue after prizes and expenses are paid. Brown’s plan includes using the money for scholarships to help students attend four-year and two-year colleges, a student loan repayment program, bonuses for retired educational staff, and agricultural education programs for high school students.

McCutcheon said he believes a lottery-only bill has a better chance in the House of Representatives than one that includes casinos. The spokesman said he believes representatives are hearing more about a lottery than casinos from people in their districts.

But things are different in the Senate. Last year, Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, proposed a lottery-only bill but could not round up enough votes. The Senate passed McClendon’s lottery bill last year after adding casinos, sports betting and a state gambling commission, a proposal similar to Albritton’s this year. It died in the house.

Albritton said he believed a lottery-only bill would again fail in the Senate this year. For Albritton, the problem with a lottery-only bill is that other games of chance, such as electronic bingo halls, remain outside of government regulation, as they actually are now.

Many of these bingo establishments operate under constitutional amendments for bingo approved by voters in their districts. Although the state Supreme Court has ruled that electronic bingo is illegal, efforts to enforce that ruling have not worked.

“A lottery is the biggest gaming expansion Alabama could do,” Albritton said. “That would put gaming on every street corner, every 7-11, almost every kiosk you come to. And it would provide availability for everyone at any time.

“While everyone wants a lottery, I’m not sure they understand the expansion that would take place in that regard. The second (point) is that a lottery does nothing to control the casinos and the expansions that take place there.”

For example, a major new electronic bingo hall is slated to open in Greene County and will operate the game under a local constitutional amendment.

Related: Electronic bingo halls are popping up all the time in Jefferson County

Supporters of the bingo operations say they fund public services and jobs in counties with limited economic resources.

Although the Senate and House of Representatives appear to be on different paths, Albritton sees potential for a compromise.

“We can get through this break here, get out 10 days on Tuesday and hopefully get a consensus on how to move forward,” Albritton said. “We only have seven legislative days left. And we have two packages in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Certainly we can bring these two things together if we need to find a way to a solution.”

The bill to ban transgender medical therapies for minors has been one of the most controversial legislatures under consideration in the past three years. Supporters of the law say it would protect minors, people under the age of 19, from medical decisions they might later regret.

Opponents of the bill, including families with transgender children and youth, say the bill would take away medical care, which is beneficial and is only given after careful evaluation by expert teams. The Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the bill.

The legislation has Republican sponsors — Senator Shay Shelnutt of Trussville and Rep. Wes Allen of Troy — and has generally met with Republican support and Democrat opposition. Shelnutt’s bill passed the Senate and was approved by a House committee on March 2. But Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have not put him on the calendar for a plenary vote.

McCutcheon said he was unsure of the bill’s chances this year.

“This is another one of those bills where we have to count votes so late in the session,” McCutcheon said. “I just said to the sponsor, ‘Let’s see how many votes we have.’ The last thing you want to accomplish in these last few days is to put bills on the floor where you have discussed much and encountered a controversy.

The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Civil Rights issued a statement March 3 that it will work to ensure transgender youth and their families have access to medical care, which faces challenges in some states, including Alabama.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed legislation to ban public schools from teaching “divisive concepts” about racial religion and sex. The ban also applies to government agencies, such as in training programs.

The bill defines nine prohibited divisive concepts, such as “that guilt, guilt or bias should be attributed to any race, sex or religion or members of any race, sex or religion solely on the basis of their race, sex or religion.”

Democrats rejected the bill in the House of Representatives, saying it could stifle teaching about difficult lessons from history. Republican sponsor, Rep. Ed Oliver of Dadeville, said the purpose is to prevent children from being taught to hate each other or to hate America. He didn’t name any schools where this happened, but said his bill is intended to be preventive.

Oliver accepted an amendment by Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, which said, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the teaching of any subject or historical event in a historically accurate context.”

The bill goes to the Senate, where the sponsor is Senator Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery.

Other states are passing legislation to curb classroom discussions of racism, part of a wave of Republican concerns about so-called critical race theory.

Continue reading: Alabama House passes “divisive concepts” bill with amendment for “appropriate context” for story

Alabama’s “divisive concepts” law is under bipartisan scrutiny

Alabama educators oppose compromise CRT law that would ban ‘divisive’ concepts from classrooms

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