Alabama bingo bill on fast track in Senate

Published 12:59 am Wednesday, February 10, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama Senate leaders are planning quick action on a bill that would protect casinos targeted by the governor, allow more casinos to open and tax and regulate the industry.

The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee voted 6-2 Tuesday for the proposed constitutional amendment and a companion bill. The six favorable votes came from Democrats. The opposition came from Republicans.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, and the Senate’s top member, President Pro Tem Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said they plan quick consideration in the Senate, possibly on Thursday or next Tuesday. They said they want to provide jobs for people who have been laid off from casinos that closed after attempted raids by the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling.

“We need to stop the circus the governor has created by running state troopers all over the state and attempting searches without warrants,” Barron said.

Senate Republicans plan to filibuster, a tactic they have used successfully in the past to block pro-gambling legislation.

“There will be a lot of conversation when the bill gets to the floor,” Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said Tuesday.

House leaders said they don’t plan to take up the legislation until they see what happens in the Senate.

If the Legislature approves the proposed constitutional amendment, it won’t go to the governor for signing. Instead, it will go before the voters in a statewide referendum Nov. 2.

Republican Gov. Bob Riley called the legislation “the biggest fraud ever perpetuated on the people of Alabama.” If passed by the Legislature, he said in a letter to lawmakers, he would “do everything in my power to expose this fraud” and have it voted down statewide.

Riley’s task force has raided one casino and attempted to raid two others because he says their electronic bingo machines are actually illegal slot machines. Three of the state’s largest casinos and about 15 small ones have closed in the last 1½ weeks for fear of raids.

Gambling proponents say more than 5,000 people have been put out of work, but state Industrial Relations Director Tom Surtees said the gambling operations reported a total of 2,150 workers on their tax records before they shut down. He said the privacy laws surrounding tax records would not allow him to disclose the number of employees at each location.

The Rev. Dan Ireland of Birmingham, longtime director of the anti-gambling Alabama Citizen Action Program, said the House and Senate tourism committees always approve pro-gambling bills, and the committee vote Tuesday is no indication of overall support for the measure.

The fight is not just between pro-gambling and anti-gambling legislators. It’s also between gambling advocates who want their cities added to the list of 10 casino locations listed in the proposed constitutional amendment.

The mayors of Florala and Prichard and the president of the Fairfield City Council pleaded with legislators Tuesday to add their cities to the list.

Florala Mayor Robert Williamson said his town on the Florida state line has lost many textile and timber jobs, and it’s only known as the last stop in Alabama on U.S. 331 before beach-bound tourists enter the Florida Panhandle. He said a developer who wants to open a gambling hall in Florala could create 1,500 badly needed jobs.

“Florala has been given the hope of a better tomorrow,” he said.

The 10 locations in the legislation are: the Mobile County greyhound track; Country Crossing in Dothan; two locations in White Hall, which already has one electronic bingo hall; VictoryLand in Shorter; Greenetrack in Eutaw; the Jefferson County dog track; and one location each in the 4th, 5th and 6th congressional districts in north Alabama to be chosen by a state gaming commission.