Will Bentley roll dice for state?

Published 1:40 am Saturday, November 22, 2014

In a meeting room at the Poarch Creek Indians’ Wind Creek Casino and Resort near Atmore Friday, tribal leaders talked to a group of newspaper editors and publishers about their history and their goals.

For decades, the generations of leaders who preceded these two smart young people begged a string of Alabama governors to negotiate a compact that would allow them to build a casino similar to the one they now operate. Such an agreement would have allowed the Indian tribe to get into gaming long before it did, and would have provided tax dollars to the state as a result.

No more, said Tribal Chairwoman Stephanie Bryan and vice chairman Robert McGhee.

Back in the begging days, the Native Americans operated a paper bingo facility near the I-65. These days, electronic bingo games that look and feel like slot machines are among the amenities that lure visitors to their facilities in Atmore and Wetumpka. Their upscale rooms, spa and cooking school are designed to attract women in the 50-plus set. The adjacent bowling alley, multi-screen theater, and arcade mean the family can come along, too.

Faced with a hemorrhaging General Fund budget, Gov. Robert Bentley has sent a few smoke signals that could be interpreted as a willingness to negotiate a compact, which the Creeks would need to expand into Class II gaming – which you and I identify as table games.

“He’ll have to come to us,” McGhee said. “We’d say, ‘You have to give us something, and something exclusive.’ ”

Because what they’ve learned is that they can make money – lots of money – with what they currently have. Table games like poker and craps require more employees, more rules, and more security.

The Tribe can’t fix the General Fund, McGhee said. But it might be able to help.

Meanwhile, there’s also talk that Alabamians are softening on the idea of a lottery to fund state government. That’d be just fine with the Tribe, too.

“We’re five miles from Florida,” McGhee said. “We already compete with the lottery. ”

But the minute Alabama passes a lottery, he said, the Tribe could expand gaming. The federal government views a lottery as Class II gaming, and federal law allows sovereign nations to operate any gaming that is allowed in the state. An Alabama lottery would open a long-closed door for the Creeks, and it wouldn’t cost them a penny in taxes.

The Native Americans like to be good neighbors, Bryan and McGhee stressed again and again, citing contributions for education and health care in the regions in which they operate. In Poarch, their full-time fire department serves a wide area that includes non-tribal members. Every child on roll is eligible for $100,000 in education benefits, whether in the form of tuition to private school, college, or to earn a welding certification or real estate license.

Their latest economic study showed that their gaming operations had a $250 million direct impact on the economy. From that, state government gets nothing, thanks to decades of non-negotiations.

It’s clear they control their own destiny. It will be interesting to see if Bentley rolls the dice to give Alabama a chance at potential tax dollars.