The regular session of the Alabama Legislature begins on Feb. 6, 2024. Legislators are allotted 30 legislative days during the session, which totals 105 calendar days.
Once again it appears that competing legislative proposals relating to gambling will be considered. Legislators have grappled unsuccessfully with the issue since 1999, the year Alabama voters declined to amend Alabama’s Constitution to permit a state lottery. Recent polling, though, has consistently demonstrated that voters very likely would approve a lottery — and even other forms of gambling, though with lesser support.
The Alabama Senate has adopted comprehensive gambling legislation several times in recent years only to see the measures die in the House chamber. Currently, Alabama has three casinos operated by the federally designated Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) where, pursuant to federal law, only electronic bingo machines are permitted to operate.
Alabama also has numerous counties authorized to offer charity bingo through local constitutional amendments. But as a result of a 2009 Alabama Supreme Court ruling, electronic bingo machines similar to machines in use at PCI casinos have been deemed illegal slot machines. Ongoing and protracted legal battles regarding the legality of electronic bingo machines have played out across the state over the ensuing 14 years. Mostly, the bingo operations involved in the litigation occurred at authorized pari-mutuel greyhound tracks in Macon and Greene counties. The Alabama Supreme Court has consistently shut down machines that have been seized from these tracks by law enforcement, but illegal bingo operations have continued to proliferate statewide, frustrating law enforcement and lawmakers alike.
Reasons abound for the lack of legislation to resolve the ongoing struggles to control and regulate gambling. Existing pari-mutuel racetracks in Alabama, mostly located in areas with high unemployment and few meaningful employment opportunities, rightfully assert their entitlement to any casino authorized by proposed legislation. But with extensive bingo operations in Houston and Lowndes counties, legislators there also demand inclusion. These demands often conflict with PCI’s interest in inclusion in a statewide bill for a casino, in addition to the three it is already operating.
Meanwhile, within the House Republican caucus, many members desire either a lottery-only bill or a lottery-only bill with a very limited number of casinos. And some Republican caucus members oppose any expansion of gambling altogether. This stew of disparate interests has so far precluded any hope of resolution.
While no legislation has yet been pre-filed for the upcoming 2024 session, Sen. Greg Albritton from Atmore, home of PCI, has indicated he will once again offer a comprehensive gambling measure to include a lottery, casinos, and sports betting. Some members of House leadership, and Gov. Kay Ivey, have openly supported gambling legislation in 2024, which would allow Alabama voters to determine whether to amend Alabama’s constitutional ban on gaming.
But House Republican caucus members so far appear to remain divided. Some House members indicate support for legislation designed to curtail the proliferation of illegal gambling and provide law enforcement more tools, such as stiffer penalties. But other members appear to support some form of limited gambling under the control of a statewide regulator with broad enforcement authority. Within these caucus members, no consensus appears to have been reached yet about the composition or approach of a gambling bill.
If House republican caucus members can reconcile their differences Alabama voters may once again be entitled to cast a vote on whether Alabama will, for the first time, join the many other states in approving gambling and the tax revenues that flow from it.