Bingo proponents drown out Ala. governor at rally

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 24, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Shouts from hundreds of casino supporters drowned out Gov. Bob Riley and his wife Tuesday as they struggled to address hundreds of casino opponents gathered in front of the Statehouse.

Chants of “Let us vote” made it nearly impossible to hear Riley say electronic bingo machines are illegal slot machines and casino operators aren’t above the law.

“Not here. Not in Alabama,” Riley said at a rally organized by Citizens for a Better Alabama and religious groups that oppose casinos.

The shouting occurred as inside the Statehouse, proponents of legislation allowing 10 electronic bingo casinos in Alabama decided not to seek a vote in the Senate. That’s because they don’t yet have the required votes — 21 of the 35 senators.

The chairman of the agenda-setting Senate Rules Committee, Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, said he has promised proponents he will bring the bill before the Senate when they can guarantee 21 votes.

“Until we are comfortable we have the 21 votes, we are going to keep working on other issues,” Barron said.

If passed by the Senate, the legislation won’t take effect unless approved by the House and then by Alabama voters in a statewide referendum Nov. 2.

The legislation would protect, tax and regulate three electronic bingo casinos that shut down under the threat of raids by the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling: VictoryLand in Shorter, Country Crossing in Dothan and White Hall Entertainment Center in Lowndes County. It would also do the same for Greenetrack in Greene County, which remains open, and would allow the dog tracks in Jefferson and Mobile counties to add casinos. New casinos would also be allowed in four other locations, taxed and regulated.

It would have no effect on the electronic bingo casinos run by the Creek Indians in Montgomery, Wetumpka and Atmore.

Ever since the Legislature convened Jan. 12, the two sides on the casino issue have held events in front of the Statehouse, but Tuesday was the first time the events had crossed over.

Casino proponents encouraged their supporters to attend the opponents’ rally.

More than 1,000 people overflowed the Statehouse lawn and spilled over onto the Capitol lawn. Advocates and foes of the bill stood side by side, sometimes exchanging sharp words but nothing more.

Riley and his wife were surrounded by a dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers as they tried to speak over the shouting of casino proponents.

Separate rallies by casino supporters were not interrupted by opponents.

A legislator with Greenetrack in his district, Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said casino proponents — including many laid-off casino employees — had a right to shout. “This is the people’s house,” he said, pointing to the Statehouse.

Tim York, a Baptist minister from Decatur, said he attended the anti-casino rally because he has seen north Alabama families who lost money in Tennessee’s lottery turn to churches for help with groceries and utilities.

“If gambling passes, it will be a tax on our churches. When homes are destroyed and bills can’t be paid, they don’t knock on the casinos’ doors. They knock on the churches’ doors for help,” he said.

Melissa Roberts, 42, of Gordon, said working as a cage supervisor at Country Crossing’s casino had allowed her to support her three children. She lost her job Jan. 29 when the casino closed to avoid being raided.

“I don’t want to be on unemployment. This is the first time in my life,” the mother of three said.

Country entertainer Darryl Worley, one of the developers of Country Crossing, told the crowd he was offended by what gambling opponents have said about proponents. “They insinuated I don’t know my Lord,” he said.

Worley said he prayed to God about whether he should speak at the pro-casino rally Tuesday.

“He spoke to me and said, ‘You go down there and speak your heart,'” Worley said. “I believe Country Crossing is a good thing.”