As a deeply red state, Alabama is quite a longshot to legalize online gambling.
The Heart of Dixie did take one tiny step in that direction this week, however, as Gov. Kay Ivey appointed a team of 12 volunteers to study the potential for expanding gambling in her state.
Alabama is currently among the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to gambling. Land-based gambling is minimal, and casino games, poker and sports betting remain illegal both online and off. For that matter, Alabama is one of only five states without a lottery program.
Even so, gambling has its proponents within the state.
Last year, for instance, Alabama was among the 37 states that tried to pass a sports betting bill (although that attempt predictably failed). Over 180 gambling-related bills have been brought up in the legislature over the past 20 years, a fact to which Ivey points as justification for the study.
The study is made possible by Executive Order 719, which Ivey signed on Feb. 14 to establish the Study Group for Gambling Policy.
The group comprises 12 volunteers who ostensibly represent a cross-section of Alabama interests. It has until the end of the year to submit its final report to the governor, the legislature, and the general public.
Although the study appears to be something of a step forward for gambling in the state, it’s merely a reversal of a previous step backward.
A week prior to signing the order, Ivey told the legislature and the state’s Poarch Band of Creek Indians not to bother sending any gambling-related bills or proposals for expanding tribal gambling to her desk until such a study is complete.
It is perhaps a good sign that she got the ball rolling on the study so quickly. It indicates some openness to the possibility.
At the same, it delays any such bills until the 2021 legislative session at the earliest. That’s frustrating to lawmakers like Rep. Steve Clouse, who was in the final stages of preparing a lottery bill.
“Personally, I don’t see the need to put the lottery in the study,” Clouse complained. “There are 45 other states that have studied it.”
Like most of the South, Alabama leans heavily towards the conservative end of the spectrum on social issues.
Nonetheless, the demand for legal gambling options is there, as it is everywhere. Lottery retailers in neighboring states can attest to the number of Alabama residents who cross the borders to buy tickets, especially when Powerball jackpots get large.
Legislators understand the demand and the potential revenues that legalization would bring. Attempts to expand gambling continually run up against opposition on moral and religious grounds, however, and even successful attempts often suffer attacks down the road.
The closest Alabama has come to a lottery was the proposed 1999 referendum rejected by voters. The most recent attempt was just last year when a lottery bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House.
Clouse’s bill, therefore, seems likely to receive Senate approval, but that won’t help if Ivey is committed to vetoing related bills while the study proceeds.
The state does allow bingo and parimutuel betting as of 1980 and 1973, respectively. Individual counties also began legalizing electronic bingo in 2003, but the state cracked down on this trend in 2010. Courts initially ruled in favor of operators, but the case eventually went to the Alabama Supreme Court, which sided with the state in 2016.
Alabama also outlawed daily fantasy sports the same year, though is subsequently did an about-face and re-legalized them in 2019.
There are three tribal casinos in the state, but all three are all Class II facilities. That means that they’re limited to bingo and electronic machines that resemble slots but base their payouts on a bingo-like system. The state tried (and failed) to shut these down in 2013.
The study group’s members come from a variety of backgrounds. Many have worked in both the public and private sectors and most have some connection to the fields of finance, business, technology, and/or law.
Its chair is the former mayor of Montgomery Todd Strange. Other notable members include the current Sheriff of Mobile County Sam Cochran, former Supreme Court Justice Jim Main, and Deborah Barnhart, the CEO of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
Much of the gambling media’s coverage of the study has focused on the inclusion of Methodist Bishop B. Mike Watson in the group. The United Methodist Church’s (UMC) stance on the issue is unequivocal. It considers gambling to be a menace to society, and its official website includes this statement:
“The Church’s prophetic call is to promote standards of justice and advocacy that would make it unnecessary and undesirable to resort to commercial gambling-including public lotteries, casinos, raffles, Internet gambling, gambling with an emerging wireless technology, and other games of chance-as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government.”
Bishop Watson probably won’t be the only contributor to the study to focus on the negatives of gambling. Justice Main served on the Supreme Court at the time it unanimously ruled against electronic bingo machines. He’s, therefore, likely to be another opponent.
There’s no one in the group who’s as clearly in favor of gambling as those two are against it.
That said, Strange did develop ties with Wind Creek Hospitality (which operates the state’s tribal casinos), accepting its offer to provide free Wi-Fi in downtown Montgomery. In addition to being its chair, the former mayor may, therefore, be one of the group’s more pro-gambling voices.