Sasser: County won’t B-I-N-G-O

Published 12:35 am Friday, May 1, 2009

In March, the county commission asked local legislators to pass legislation clarifying state laws that govern bingo in Covington County, but yesterday, the chairman of that group said the commission is “washing its hands of it.”

In March, the commission unanimously approved a resolution asking House Speaker Seth Hammett (D-Andalu-sia) and Sen. Jimmy Holley (R-Elba) to repeal one of two Alabama laws that affect gaming in Covington County.

Hammett said the resulting House Bill 821, said it was his understanding that the commission requested the bill to clarify who was in charge of bingo. But one commissioner said Thursday that the commission wanted the legislative act repealed so that the county could regulate and potentially receive money from the licensing of electronic bingo here.

The commissioner said at least three representatives of the gaming industry had approached the county about operating electronic bingo in the county for local charities, although one of those representatives has abandoned the effort.

At present, there are two laws on the books in Alabama which regulate gaming in Covington County.

Act No. 93-886, passed by the legislature in 1993, provides for the implementation of a constitutional amendment authorizing the county commission to regulate the operation of bingo in Covington County.

The act states that “a bona fide religious, educational, service, senior citizens, fraternal or veterans organization” which operates without profit may be permitted to conduct bingo. The act sets the annual license fee at $100 and charges the sheriff with licensing bingo. The act also allows charities to get a special permit to conduct bingo on specific occasions.

The second piece of legislation, Constitutional Amendment 565, approved by state-wide vote in 1994, gives the county commission the authority to “promulgate rules and regulations for issuing permits or licenses and for operating bingo games within the county.”

House Bill 821 – currently before the legislature – would repeal Act No. 93-886, which allows the sheriff to license charities to conduct bingo.

Both Hammett and Holley said that while HB821 has been introduced in a House committee, it will not be approved in the current session of the legislature.

With rumors about the potential for electronic bingo circulating in the county, the Covington Baptist Association has approved a resolution strongly opposing the expansion of local gaming which it plans to present to the commission at its next meeting. The group also organized a public information meeting at First Baptist Church Wednesday night.

During that meeting, the governor’s deputy legal advisor, Sonny Reagan, explained the proposed statewide gaming bill currently before the legislature, referred to as Sweet Home Alabama. If Sweet Home Alabama passes, he said, it repeals all language in the Constitution and the Code of Alabama currently governing gaming, and repeals the constitutional amendments currently authorizing charity bingo in 18 counties, including Covington.

Commission Chairman Lynn Sasser said Thursday the commission’s request for HB821 – the bill that would leave the regulation of charitable bingo in the hands of the commission – was based in a desire to protect local people.

“Politics ain’t got a damn thing to do with it,” Sasser said. “It’s about protecting Covington County from the riff raff.”

At present, he said, the commission can only regulate bingo.

“We can’t permit it. That’s the sheriff,” he said, referring to the 1993 act that charges the sheriff with permitting bingo.

“We just wanted more power to control who can and who can’t have bingo,” he said.

Now, he said, the commission “is going to wash its hands of it.”

“This whole thing was done to protect the American Legion, who’s been doing it since January 1995 when it was voted on by the people of Covington County and added to the Alabama Constitution,” Sasser said. “The Legion came to us and wanted the commission to regulate bingo. It was done at the request of ‘concerned citizens’ who wanted us to tell them what they could or couldn’t do in regards to bingo.

“This whole thing has gotten blown out of proportion. This has nothing to do with Sweet Home Alabama,” Sasser said. “Whatever happens, happens. We’re not going to be involved. The Covington County Commission is through with bingo. It won’t be on our agenda. If it runs wild, it runs wild. We’re washing our hands of it.”

At present, there are three entities with bingo permits in the county, Sheriff Dennis Meeks said Thursday. Two permit holders are American Legion organizations, and the third is the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce in Florala. All conduct bingo games with paper cards.

Meeks said that licensing the three charities currently using bingo to raise money isn’t a problem, but that he didn’t have a problem with the commission being in charge of the licensing if the proposed HB821 passes.