Alabama Senate Kills Ambitious Gambling Bill

| March 15, 2021 2:00 pm PDT

Individuals, families, and businesses aren’t the only entities suffering from the pandemic that wouldn’t die—State governments are scrambling to make up for lost revenue with gambling initiatives that are sometimes more wishful thinking than common sense planning.

Take Alabama, for instance. The state legislature spent the few months entertaining an omnibus gambling bill that would offer its citizens the opportunity to vote on introducing a state lottery, casino gambling, and sports betting to the Alabama culture.

Back in February, State Senator Del Marsh started the process to amend the state constitution with Senate Bill 214, which would not only create a state lottery, but would also permit up to five casinos in the state. It also legalized sports betting in Alabama.

Our Constitution’s Bigger than Your Constitution

For such widespread gambling to become part of the Alabama social culture would require an amendment to the state’s current constitution (its sixth, ratified in 1901). But it first needed to survive the legislature, which is responsible for deciding what initiatives and proposals will be submitted to the voters come election day.

Fun Facts: At 345,000 words, Alabama’s current constitution is the longest of all fifty states. Vermont’s is the shortest at a taciturn 8,295 words. The U.S. Constitution—including all 27 Amendments—is only 12,134 words long.

But for Marsh’s proposed constitutional amendment to one step closer to being added to the other 345,000 words requires a 3/5 majority of both houses of the Alabama legislature (rather than a simple majority).

One of the reasons Alabama’s constitution is so lengthy is that local cut-outs for all sorts of laws are added as amendments to it. For instance, multiple counties are permitted to operate nonprofit bingo games. Not all, mind you, but some. And each of those counties has a separate amendment in the state constitution detailing the width and breadth and duration that permission.

Sure, a single amendment allowing such would be brief, fair, and unequivocal—but where’s the fun in that?

In any case, if the Alabama Senate (and House of Representatives) had approved the gambling amendment, it would have been placed on November’s ballot for voter ratification.

But that didn’t happen. This past week, Marsh’s bill failed to meet that 3/5 majority by two votes—he needed 21 votes, he got 19 (Alabama’s senate comprises 35 senators).

It’s not that there is no gambling in Alabama, despite the 1901 constitution’s prohibition of such. For instance, the federally recognized Poarch Band of Creek Indians operates several dog racing tracks in the state, and those tracks offer patrons the opportunity to play Class II electronic bingo games. Marsh’s bill would have permitted full casino-style gambling at four of those racetracks.

Incidentally, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has gaming operations not only in Alabama, but also Nevada, Aruba, Curaçao, Florida, and online. Projects to develop gaming properties in Virginia and Illinois are underway.

Why Did Alabama’s Gambling Bill Fail?

So why did the bill to put the legalization of gambling in all its myriad forms before Alabama voters in November fail to make it through the state senate? Many point to the ambitious goals of the bill.

As recently as last week Senator Marsh told reporters he had the votes in the state senate to move the bill. What changed?

Steve Flowers, a political analyst in Alabama, recently told reporters “I think there are a lot of reasons it didn’t pass. I think it would have had a hard time in the House. The bill also had a lottery, casino gambling and sports betting. [Marsh] may have gotten a lottery, but not all three.”

We’ll never know. But we can also surmise that the passage of the bill was hindered by a lawsuit filed against Marsh a few days prior to the senate vote on SB 214.

The suit alleges Marsh received money from the Poarch Band, which already operates four of the five locations the bill would have opened to casino gambling. Those four existing enterprises are the dog racing tracks mentioned earlier, while a fifth casino, as yet unbuilt, would have been allowed on Poarch Band lands.

That lawsuit may have created just enough concern amongst Alabama’s senators that a few more than expected voted against the bill simply to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

J.W. Paine

J.W. Paine is one of the most experienced writers at GamblingSites.com. He's written for television and the printed media, and is a published novelist (as Tom Elliott).

Paine loves writing about Las Vegas nearly as much he loves living here. An experienced gambler, he's especially familiar with thoroughbred horseracing, poker, blackjack, and slots.

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