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Time running short for Alabama gambling expansion

| By Jill R. Dorson
Alabama lawmakers told the media earlier this week that a conference committee brokering a deal for an expansion of gambling would meet on Wednesday (24 April) at 2pm local time. But as early as Wednesday morning, the meeting had fallen off the legislative calendar for the day.
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A call to the Alabama house of representatives confirmed that the meeting was off for Wednesday (24 April) with no reschedule date. The legislature is now scheduled to close on 5 May. This will leave lawmakers a little more than a week to reach a deal for an Alabama gambling expansion. It will then require approval from the house and senate.

If approved, the decision to approve any gambling expansion would go to the voters. The house version of the bill would put the issue on the November ballot. The senate version would create a special election in September.

Historically with gambling, precious few bills that don’t have consensus relatively early in a session make it to a governor’s desk. Just this year, the Georgia general assembly closed with lawmakers giving nearly hourly updates on a sports betting bill on the final day. The bill never got to either chamber floor. And in Maryland, lawmakers mostly abandoned the idea of legal online casino with about a week left in the session.

One lawmaker says meetings have been “productive”

Representative Chris Blackshear, who has championed the expansion in the Alabama house, told the Alabama Reflector on Wednesday that the conference committee had “several productive meetings”. He also promised a public conference-committee meeting “when both sides are comfortable doing so”.

The conference committee is comprised of Senators Greg Albritton, Bobby Singleton and Garlan Gudger and Representatives Blackshear, Sam Jones and Andy Whitt. They have been meeting behind closed doors.

It’s anyone’s guess what the committee will propose, if anything. At the start of the session, the house passed a sweeping gambling expansion. This would have allowed for up to 10 brick-and-mortar casinos, retail and digital sports betting and a lottery. Alabama is one of five states that does not have a lottery.

Senate stripped Alabama gambling expansion bill

The key bill that includes a framework for any new gambling passed through the house in a week in February. It then went through multiple senate committees that stripped it of everything but lottery before it passed the senate floor on 7 March. The bill was sent back to the house for concurrence, which it declined, and then the conference committee was created.

It’s far from a sure thing that the conference committee will reach consensus. While the bill passed the house, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which already operates three physical casinos in the state, did not lend its full commitment to backing the senate version, which would allow for some gambling at state racetracks and bingo halls. This would encroach on the tribe’s right to exclusivity.

In addition, during senate discussions, members of the Black caucus said they had been left out of negotiations affecting their districts. Anti-gambling and religious groups have also continued to lobby against any kind of expansion.

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