Alabama gambling vote derailed spectacularly at the last minute

Jon Pill
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Posted on: May 7, 2021 7:46 pm EDT

Yesterday was a big day in the extremely conservative state of Alabama. Their legislature was looking at bills for the legalization of marijuana and gambling. Both on the same day.

The gambling package was made up of three bills. One to set up a state lottery, one with provisions for licensing nine casinos in the state, and one for a constitutional amendment to legalize gambling in the state. Alabama is currently one of only five states without a lottery at the moment.

The bill for legal weed went through. Unfortunately for Alabaman card-sharks, the latter package of bills did not.

The House didn’t vote the gambling bills down. In fact, they didn’t vote on them all. Instead, the entire process ground to a halt before it got properly started. A series of fights and controversies detonated on the house floor, and the day ended in chaotic inconclusion.

The bill had to be rescheduled for May 17, the last day of the 2021 legislative session. There will be no meetings between then and now. As a result, it seems unlikely that the bill will get to the vote even with the extra ten days of review. If that happens, there will be just one legislative meeting before the mid-terms next year.

The bills will be contingent on a constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments are made by referendum on election days. The Alabama house of representatives needs to get themselves together to untangle this mess before the mid-terms in November 2022. If they don’t then the whole issue of legal gambling will have to roll over to the 2024 elections.

Democracy inaction

The House Speaker Mac McCutcheon tried to paper over the acrimony on the house floor.

“Tensions were high because people have been working so hard,” McCutcheon said. “Everybody was just really upset at the way things were. There was no effort to pull anything behind anybody’s back. We were trying to get a bill on the floor.”

In fact, it seems like the bill was ill fated from the start. Puritanical elements in the Republican camp opposed gambling on principal. That meant the Republican-led bill needed bipartisan support.

To get the Democrats on board, the Republicans proposed that 40% of the monies raised from gambling in the state be earmarked for healthcare expansion, a notoriously vexed issue for the right.

The Democrats objected to the “vague wording” of the Medicaid section of the bill. But they didn’t do so until the bill was on the floor.

The Republicans refused to tighten up the Medicaid provision, strongly suggesting that the original draft was written in bad faith. A fact that Representative Pebblin Warren, Democrat for Tuskegee, picked up on.

“If you don’t have integrity when you’re dealing with gaming, you need to give it up. And what I have seen in this room tonight, integrity is nowhere around,” Warren said.

The session failed to recover from there. In a political race to the bottom, the Republicans tried to floor an entirely new Lottery Bill that no one else had seen. In the end, the toys left the playpen and the session closed without any votes being cast at all.

A compromise pleases no one

On reflection, the bill was unlikely to pass. In a highly polarised state, in a highly polarised nation, the pressures of getting a bipartisan bill are insurmountable. Especially on a controversial issue like gambling.

The Democrats wanted to make sure of several protective provisions. One was to use the bill to fund healthcare. Another was to protect bingo halls. A third was to ensure roles for people of color in the newly established businesses.

Almost all of the new casinos would have been located at established dog tracks.

This led resort lobbyists to oppose the bill on the grounds that it would keep new businesses from entering the market. These included Donald Trump Junior, the son of the man who ran the Atlantic City Taj Mahal into the ground. Trump tweeted that the bill was just “giving a monopoly to a small group of casino bosses. […] This bill would stop the world’s best gaming operators from opening world-class Resorts & Casinos in Alabama!”

Other Republicans called the bill “crony-capitalism.”

Good luck, poker players of Alabama, you’re gonna need it.

Featured image source: Flickr by Lawrence G. Miller