Holley votes to debate bingo, wanted Florala added to bill

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 4, 2010

If a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize electronic bingo at 10 locations in the state had been brought to the floor of the senate for debate yesterday, Covington County’s senator said he would have asked for an 11th destination for electronic bingo – Florala.

The bill fell three votes short of the 21 needed to bring it to the Senate floor for debate.

Sen. Jimmy Holley (R-Elba), who was among the 18 voting for debate on the bill, said Wednesday afternoon he planned to propose an amendment to the bill to make Florala a point of destination along with VictoryLand, Country Crossing, and other sites in the state.

“But it never came up for consideration,” Holley said. “Had it, I would have proposed a constitutional amendment that would have called for a vote by the citizens of Covington County of whether or not they wanted (electronic bingo).

“I have taken the position that it’s time for the citizens of Alabama to weigh in on this topic,” he said. “I hoped that if it came up for a vote (by the Senate) that the next course we’d have taken would be to allow the citizens to make the judgment. It doesn’t seem like the executive branch or the courts can make that judgment, so the only course left is for the people to decide.”

Sen. Roger Bedford (D-Russellville), earlier got the Senate to delay consideration of a companion bill that would have allowed closed electronic bingo casinos to reopen. Most Alabama gambling halls have been closed for about a month to avoid raids by the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling, which argues the machines look and operate as slot machines.

Wednesday’s action by the Senate doesn’t kill the bills. Sen. Bedford can revise them and attempt to bring them up later in the legislative session, which is exactly what Florala city attorney Wes Laird believes will happen.

“I don’t think (the subject of electronic bingo) is over,” Laird said. “I think they are considering comparable bills, and in fact, I have seen one bill that allows for all counties with constitutional amendments to have an electronic bingo facility provided that the county commission votes to license it.”

Laird said he was unsure of the bill’s sponsor but felt any bill would “need additional points of destination to pass.”

In January, the Florala City Council unanimously adopted an electronic bingo ordinance in the hopes of generating an estimated minimum $697,000 in annual city revenue in the first two years of a facility’s operation. That figure would increase to a minimum of $1.2 million for each year after that.

An announcement followed in February of a partnership between the Florala Historical Society, a local non-profit, and an out-of-state gaming interest that wanted to build an electronic bingo development in Florala that included a hotel and restaurant. The developer was prepared to have a temporary electronic bingo facility up and running within 45 days if Sheriff Dennis Meeks would issue the non-profit historical society a permit.

As of Wednesday, Meeks said, “Not yet,” when asked if a permit had been issued. He said he spoke to the society’s board of director’s last Thursday to “explain what they could and couldn’t do” with a bingo permit.

“They asked me then if they could have a paper bingo permit, and from what I understand, they are doing an application for that now,” Meeks said. “I told them that they needed to understand that this was for paper bingo. (If used for) anything else, it would be null and void and there could be other legal ramifications.

“I told them if they wanted to do paper bingo, I had no problem with that,” he said. “I could care less. They’re just as entitled to permit for paper bingo as the American Legion.”

So where does that leave Florala in their quest for electronic bingo?

“There are so many moving parts in this,” Laird said.

“There is the issue of permit. You’ve got developers lobbying hard (for electronic bingo). You’ve got the legislature at work, all of which – or any of which – could change the landscape, so it’s hard to say where we are.

“But I can tell you I don’t think the vote (Wednesday) means (electronic bingo) is over at all,” he said.

Mayor Robert Williamson said the day’s vote was a “clear indication of the people speaking to their legislators.”

“Had they not spoken, I think (the bill) would have ultimately passed,” he said.

“My hat is off to the people.”

In recent days, Williamson and others promoting the development have asked area residents to ask Sen. Holley and House Speaker Seth Hammett to amend the bill to help Florala.