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Lottery legislation: Inside Alabama's lottery debate

Feb 3, 2020, 10:21 am

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A drive across the Mississippi state line is becoming a common trip for Alabamians who want to play the state's new lottery.

"At least twice a week," Aretha told us as she bought a ticket.

"At least once a week," Joseph said from the convenient store right across the state line.

"I would rather spend it where we live so we can pay for everything over there," said Brenda Gerganus as she bought a handful of tickets .

Gurganus said she'd rather her lottery money go to Alabama's schools.

"I would love for Alabama to get the lottery," she continued. "Because we need it over there instead of all of us having to drive out of state to another place for us to get our lotteries."

Now surrounded by states with lotteries, some Alabama lawmakers feel more pressure.

Bills came close in 2016 and 2019.

"No lottery is clean," Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) said from the Senate floor. "It does something. It's going to help somebody."

A bill couldn't make it out of the State House and to the governor.

"And I believe the reason it didn't is those other gaming entities didn't want to see that put to bed if you will," said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R- Anniston).

Marsh says it's all about who benefits from the bill, whether it be the Poarch Creek Indians or Alabama's four licensed gaming facilities like Greentrack.

Right now, they only offer electronic bingo games, which resemble slot machines.

"They see the lottery as a ticket if you will to getting an agreement on how gaming is handled in the state of Alabama," Marsh said.

That's why Alabama's lottery debate is not just about those paper tickets you buy at gas stations.

"What do you say to people around the state who ask, why can't we just vote on a lottery? Why do all these other gambling interests have to be involved?" we asked Marsh.

"Well because you have to get a bill out of the legislature to put before the people to vote on." Marsh replied. "It's difficult when you have different factions of the legislature who have, you've heard the saying politics is local. These people who represent those entities on the local level, who vote them into office, that's what they care about."

The Senate leader says compromise is needed.

"If that can happen, and you get an agreement between gaming entities and Poarch Creeks, thanI do believe the passage of a lottery is more predicable," Marsh said.

The Poarch Creek Indians make it perfectly clear what they want.

The tribe is pitching a plan to pay Alabama for the exclusive rights to casino games and two new casinos.

It also includes a state-run lottery.

Vice Chair Robert McGhee expects the tribe's plan to generate one billion dollars its first year.

"We feel with the license fees, and the lottery income, the revenue coming in, and the tax that it could be very beneficial to Alabama for years to come," said McGhee.

But why a monopoly? Some question if Alabama's other gaming facilities should be allowed to offer the same games.

"Our concern has been- this is about the Poarch Band of Creek," McGhee said. "This is a plan we've put together and anything that comes forward from anybody, shouldn't it also say, okay can it equal the billion dollars? Or what other revenue can be brought in? And do we still pay a billion dollars if other operators are possibly included?"

"I think it should be a level playing field and we all go in and compete," said Greentrack CEO Luther Winn.

We went to Greentrack, where Winn is another player in the lottery debate.

He tells us his goal is to be allowed to offer the same games the tribe can offer.

"That would allow economic development and the maximum amount of money paid to the state," said Winn. "That's what it's all about creating jobs here in Green County and providing tax revenue for the local government and state of Alabama."

As lottery bills are drafted for the upcoming session, Senator Marsh stays optimistic. He gives them a 60 percent chance.

"It's going to take a lot of work and negotiations with a lot of people to get on the same page to get something out, and I think we have a chance to do that," Marsh said.

Alabama's legislative session begins February 4.

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