Gambling meeting draws crowd

Published 12:34 am Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gov. Bob Riley’s deputy legal advisor said that the Sweet Home Alabama bill proposed in the current legislative session came as a direct result of the governor’s gambling task force.

Sonny Reagan, deputy legal advisor to the governor, spoke to more than 160 people who attended a meeting at First Baptist Church Wednesday night. The meeting was organized after members of the Covington Baptist Association became concerned about proposed legislation that affects gambling statewide and in Covington County, FBC minister Fred Karthaus said.

Reagan explained laws against gaming in the Constitution of 1901, the Code of Alabama, and in legal opinions.

“Section 65 of the Constitution has specific prohibitions against the lottery, which is defined by the state courts as games of chance,” Reagan said.

Charity bingo amendments began appearing in 1980 when Jefferson County was the first county in the state to have a Constitutional Amendment ratifying charity bingo. There are now 18 Constitutional Amendments allowing charitable bingo, he said, including one approved for Covington County in the mid-1990s. Only two of those authorize electronic bingo, he said.

“These amendments do not destroy the Constitution’s general prohibition of gambling,” he said.

Previously, he said, state courts also have ruling gambling illegal here.

In 2006, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Barber v. Jefferson County Racing Commission that machines that “look like, sound like and attract the same class of customer as conventional slot machines, and, when integrated with serves, serve the same function as slot machines” are illegal.

Reagan said Riley has taken the position that gambling is illegal in Alabama and authorized the gambling task force in late December. He said the task force has an “undisclosed number” of undercover ABI and ABC agents working on gambling cases. Earlier this year, the group orchestrated a raid at White Hall in rural Lowndes County and temporarily closed the facility.

“White Hall officials said in court they were losing $100,000 a day (when they were shut down),” he said. “In Lowndes County, Ala., where they claim that they gave more than $500,000 back to charity. That’s five days (of profit).”

The county has an extraordinarily high unemployment rate, plus a large number of people on government subsidies, he said.

“They prey on poor people,” he said.

He said the proponents claim that the electronic bingo machines are actually slot machines that have reprogrammed to “play quick games of bingo in six or seven seconds.”

In Kimberly, Ala., he said, there as a facility known there as “the bingo plant” where old slot machines removed from casinos were actually reprogrammed to include small bingo cards in the corners of the electronic screens.

“Saying that these machines play quick games of bingo among themselves is the same as me sitting on the couch, watching a baseball game and telling my wife I’m playing baseball, he said. “

A big question, he said, is that the state Supreme Court has never ruled whether electronic playing of bingo is legal in Alabama.

“It’s never been before the Supreme Court,” he said. “We hope we have a case that gets there.”

Reagan said the Sweet Home Alabama legislation –which he said favors current gaming bosses in Alabama – was written after the governor’s gambling task force was formed.

The Alabama House and Senate have five meeting days left in the current session, scheduled to end May 18.

“A lot can happen in five days,” he said.

Reagan said the Sweet Home Alabama Coalition wants to legalize casinos and is making a tremendous push to do this quickly.

“I’m shocked at how much they’re spending to promote it and I’d venture to say, 100 percent of the funding is coming from out of state,” he said.

“It creates a monopoly and guarantees wealth for certain gambling bosses, he said.

At present, there are 18 counties with Constitutional Amendments for gaming, he said.

“This bill repeals every single one of the amendments.”

Under the proposed legislation, which has passed a Senate committee but has not been approved by a full committee, and has not come out of committee in the House, there would be “points of destination,” most of them where there are existing gambling operations, at which gaming would be allowed.

“It taxes gaming at 20 percent, but reduces the tax rate to 10 percent for existing bosses.”

The legislation calls for a Constitutional Amendment, which, if approved by Alabama voters, would repeal all current Alabama laws governing gaming, as well as court interpretations of those laws, he said.

If the bill comes out of legislature, he said, “the voters are the only ones who can stop it.”

“The governor can’t stop a Constitutional Amendment,” he said.

Reagan also touched briefly on a gaming bill requested by the Covington County Commission and currently in committee in the legislature. For more information on that bill, see the Friday edition of The Star-News.