Bingo bill puts county in a quandary

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Alabama Senate is scheduled to debate a bingo bill this week that has huge impact for the state and will put Covington County in a quandary if approved.

Sen. Roger Bedford, the Democrat from Russellville, sponsored SB380, also known as “Sweet Home Alabama II.”

The legislation is a constitutional amendment that – if approved by Alabama voters – would allow the state’s largest electronic bingo casinos at Country Crossing, VictoryLand, Greenetrack and White Hall to operate without the threat of raids. The bill would also allow electronic bingo casinos to open at the dog tracks in Jefferson and Mobile counties and four other locations. The casinos would be taxed and regulated by a state gaming commission, which the bill establishes.

That same gaming commission would have the authority to license three additional bingo facilities at sites yet to be named in Alabama’s 4th, 5th and 6th Congressional Districts.

Sweet Home Alabama II does away with the need for bingo operations to be tied to a charity, and to make it even sweeter, it will tax proceeds and share those taxes with counties that don’t have bingo.

The state taxes, estimated at $160 million initially, would be split between the Education Trust Fund and General Fund. The bill also sets a local tax at 5 percent (approximately $42.5 million) to be divided among non-bingo counties based on population.

Though designed to make the bill “sweet” for voters in the counties that won’t have a facility, that sticky detail would force a bittersweet decision for Covington County.

Because we have an amendment that allows charitable bingo, we wouldn’t get a share of that money as the legislation is currently written.

If the amendment is approved, the county could ask local legislators to abolish the constitutional amendment permitting charitable bingo in Covington County. That would require yet another statewide vote and would end the traditional card games run by the local American Legion to fund scholarships.

Either way, Florala’s plans for bingo wouldn’t be worth the paper they’re written on.

Sen. Jimmy Holley and Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, both of whom represent us in Montgomery, have said they favor a statewide vote on the issue, although neither has publicly supported Bedford’s bill.

Interestingly, Covington County is the only county in Sen. Holley’s district that wouldn’t benefit from Bedford’s bill. Houston County has Country Crossings, and neither Coffee nor Dale counties have a bingo amendment.

Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee and thereby controls the body’s agenda, said this past week he was delaying a vote on the proposed constitutional amendment while proponents work to round up supporters. They need 21.

The bill has not come out of committee in the House of Representatives, which is waiting to see what the fractious Senate will do. If legislators succeed in “letting the people decide,” it will mean a tough choice for Covington County.