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Legislators, Tribal Representatives Weigh In On Why Alabama Gambling Expansion Failed

Written By Matthew Kredell | Updated:
Alabama State Capitol

Gambling expansion efforts rarely get messier than this year in Alabama, where the Senate’s biggest champion for regulating gambling found himself casting the deciding vote to defeat legislation that had gotten away from him.

PlayUSA heard from Sen. Greg Albritton, Rep. Andy Whitt and representatives of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) to explain what happened in a topsy-turvy Alabama session for gambling legislation.

Whitt and Albritton were on the conference committee that made a final recommendation on a state lottery, electronic casino games at seven commercial facilities, permitting the governor to enter the state into a compact with PCI to offer Class III gaming, creating the Alabama Gaming Commission, and enforcing illegal gaming in the state.

After the House voted 72-29 in favor of the conference report for HB151 and 70-29 for HB152, the expansions came down to the Senate.

However, the Senate never brought the bills for a floor vote. Amending the constitution required 21 Senate votes. The bills had 20 votes and Albritton refused to make it 21 to put the gambling expansions in front of voters on the November ballot.

Albritton explained to PlayUSA why he voted down the legislation:

“When they went down the direction of putting slot machines in seven casinos and not allowing PCI to have any participation in the industry, then kept sports betting and online gaming completely out of the legislation, that went too far for me to support the compromise.”

Alabama Senator backs tribe in rejecting gambling expansion

Understanding Albritton’s decision requires knowing why PCI didn’t support the final legislation.

Poarch Creek currently operates Class II gaming based on electronic bingo in three facilities on tribal lands. The tribe is the largest constituent in Albritton’s district.

Speaking Tuesday on an Indian Gaming Association webcast with Victor Rocha, PCI Chairwoman Stephanie Bryan said she was nearly in cardiac arrest on the final day of the legislative session but relieved when the Senate didn’t have the votes to pass the expansion.

She credited Albritton for his support in defeating the bills.

“He took a lot of bad press that he didn’t want people to vote on a lottery for education. … At the end of the day, he let the people know that he was really looking out for the best interest of the state and who he represents, which is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. And so we’re forever grateful for his commitment to the state and his commitment to the tribe.”

Whitt said that lobbying from PCI, the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alabama Policy Institute influenced Senators to change their minds on the gambling expansions at the last minute.

“The legislation’s ultimate demise came from outside interference that not only forced the Senate bill sponsor to vote no, but also caused people to change their vote within 30 minutes of walking to the Senate floor. It reminded me of The Wizard of Oz and who was behind the curtain pulling the strings.”

Poarch Creek tried to work with House on gambling expansion

Over the past two decades, PCI often has taken the lead in pushing for gambling expansion through the legislature.

After no expansion attempts in 2023, this year’s effort began with House leadership.

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter wanted to clean up the growing illegal industry in Alabama. That required regulation and generating the gaming revenue needed to pay for enforcement.

“We really did not know what to expect this legislative session,” Bryan said. “And it was unusual because it was usually the tribe presenting gaming legislation. This legislative session it was the House pushing for a gaming legislation bill, which is very different for us.”

Many outsiders see Alabama as a conservative state that hasn’t joined the gambling craze of most other states around the country. It’s one of five states without a lottery.

However, local jurisdiction constitutional amendments allow for unregulated electronic bingo. Skill games or electronic bingo pop up many places around the state because perpetrators only get a misdemeanor slap on the wrist.

Poarch Creek pledged to work with the House on the expansion. The tribe was generally supportive of the legislation passed by the House in February that included online sports betting and a northeast casino for PCI outside tribal land.

The tribe had two issues with the bill passed by the House. It wanted online sports betting licenses tethered to Alabama casinos and it wanted Alabama entities to have the opportunity to make one last bid on Alabama casino licenses, with no one entity allowed to own more than two.

“They asked for our input,” Bryan said of the House. “We simply told them we want to work with you on what’s good for the tribe and what’s good for the state. Could you just put in that legislative language for the House version, the last and final bid with an Alabama operator. That way you are allowing the money to be made in the state and keep it in the state.”

Tribe didn’t see any advantage in final language

Poarch Creek’s main issue with the final Alabama gambling expansion language was that it allowed commercial facilities to expand gaming options without allowing the tribe to participate. The tribe didn’t have the opportunity to open a casino in the northeast part of the state nor bid on a casino license.

“I was trying to get them a casino in a northeast location so they could participate in the industry, and I couldn’t get beyond first base on that,” Albritton said. “All that was shut down and there was language in there preventing the PCI from engaging in any of this industry outside of their already held properties. So we had nothing of value to give the tribe that they didn’t already have or couldn’t get.”

If passed, tribal representatives warned lawmakers that the state wouldn’t get a penny from the tribe for Class III gaming.

Rather than enter into a revenue-sharing compact with the state, the tribe believed it could go to the US Department of Interior and get Class III gaming approved under secretarial procedures, based on the fact that others were offering it in the state.

Compacting with the state could get the tribe table games, but that wasn’t very meaningful to them when commercial entities had electronic casino-style games.

Poarch Creek Vice Chair Robert McGhee explained to PlayUSA:

“What is the competitive advantage for us to have table games with a dealer, overhead and all of these extra expenses when a casino up the road can offer the same game just without a dealer? In a compact, the state can only get money by giving us something others do not have. So what did they actually give us in this bill that others do not have? They gave us the ability to operate a craps table with an actual dealer. However, there are many electronic forms of craps out there.”

With no money from the tribe, Albritton said the legislation did not make sense for the state.

“What the Senate did frankly was make the bill economically unviable. It was not enough money to fund an enforcement arm nor do any of the other good for the state except the Education Trust Fund, which is full of money.”

Final legislation possibly allowed sports betting

In addition to table games, the constitutional amendment would have allowed PCI to offer sports betting in a compact. But only at physical locations on tribal lands.

Also, the tribe was concerned that language did not prohibit sports betting from being offered elsewhere in the state. The tribe feared that could lead to sports betting being considered an electronic table game permitted at the commercial facilities.

McGhee contended:

“The Senate did not want sportsbook and said to take it out. But our argument is that they didn’t take it out. Then the language says ‘electronic games, including but not limited to …’ So it’s left up to the regulatory commission, which could allow it.”

Senator would like to see online casino in next Alabama bill

Albritton said that if the legislature wants to clean up the unregulated gaming going on in Alabama, it should focus on regulated online casino as well.

“Without regulation and enforcement, the problem isn’t really the unregulated physical gaming in the state. It lies in sports gaming and online gaming. That’s where the growth of this industry is, and to just close your eyes and stick your head back in the sand and not be interested in taking control of that is beyond my reasoning.”

When Alabama comes back with another gambling expansion effort, Albritton said he thinks it should include online casino.

“I think we should. Isn’t that where the damage occurs? That’s where people get addicted. If gambling is such an evil, which we’ve been taught that it is, then why aren’t we doing something to control it? Why aren’t we doing something to restrict it? We’re not. We’re just allowing it to continue to grow.”

Next Alabama gambling legislation could be years away

The lawmakers and tribal representatives were unanimous in thinking that next Alabama gambling expansion effort won’t be in 2025. And it might not be in the gubernatorial election year of 2026.

“I have heard that it will not come back up for a couple years,” Bryan said. “We will prepare to know what our strategy is going forward now that this session has ended to be proactive instead of reactive. It’s my goal to work with the state for what’s best for the tribe and help the state figure out how we make this right.”

Whitt agreed that he doesn’t think the Alabama legislature will try for another gambling expansion anytime soon.

“I don’t see a pathway going forward until the Alabama Senate gets serious about solving this problem. As my grandmother would often say, the only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance.”

Albritton also doesn’t see another comprehensive gambling effort coming in Alabama.

“This was a pretty good shot we made and it just got confiscated and killed. I don’t know if it will have a change simply in a matter of months. I don’t see that changing. The only thing that would bring any change I think is the populous and a groundswell of demand, if there is any on this topic.”

The Poarch Creek representatives said the tribe would support a clean lottery bill and legislation making gambling misdemeanors into felonies to help enforcement next session.

However, Albritton said he doesn’t think there is such a thing as a clean lottery bill.

Albritton summed up the Alabama gambling expansion efforts this session:

“The House was trying to protect and pass their bill, and I understand that. I don’t know if blame could be put at anyone’s door at this point. It’s just so frustrating. We know what all the answers are, we know what the problems are and we know how to fix them. But no one wants to go in the direction to find a way to bring parity and control in the state over gambling. They seem to be content with the status quo, which in my mind is the wild west there.”

Photo by Shutterstock/Rob Hainer
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Written by
Matthew Kredell

Matthew Kredell serves as senior lead writer of legislative affairs involving online gambling at PlayUSA. He began covering efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling in 2007 after federal passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act disrupted his hobby of playing small-stakes online poker. He has since interviewed more than 300 lawmakers around the country and written extensively about online gambling legislation. He has led coverage of bills to legalize online gambling in most states. A lifelong Angeleno and USC journalism alum, Matthew started his career working as a sportswriter for a decade at the Los Angeles Daily News. He has written on a variety of topics for Playboy Magazine, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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