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Ala. Senate approves electronic bingo

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–The Alabama Senate voted March 30 to legalize and expand slot machine gambling, which is currently illegal and being referred to as electronic bingo.

Now the bill will face the Alabama House, and if it passes and is not vetoed by Gov. Bob Riley, it will go before Alabama residents for a vote.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program, is calling for Alabama residents to help stop the legislation.

“We don’t think they have the votes in the House, but just like they peeled votes off here, they are going to try to peel votes off in the House,” Godfrey said. “That is why it is important for church members and Christians to contact members of the House and ask them respectfully to oppose SB 380.

“… They need to call in large numbers. We need to burn the phone lines up at the statehouse and send letters, cards and e-mails. There needs to be an outpouring that would stun the House members,” Godfrey said.

At issue are thousands of electronic gambling machines, which look and play like slot machines but are being labeled electronic bingo machines.

Alabama’s constitution explicitly forbids slot machines, but some counties have passed constitutional amendments allowing traditional paper bingo for charity. Casinos have seized on those amendments, claiming they permit the electronic machines. The governor says the machines are illegal, but the attorney general says they could be legal in some cases.

Sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D.-Russellville, the bill passed in a 21-13 vote after acquiring three key votes from Sens. Bobby Denton, D.-Muscle Shoals; Jim Preuitt, D.-Talladega; and Larry Means, D.-Attalla.

Hours before the vote, senators opposing the bill were not allowed to participate in the debate. They had hoped to present an amendment giving Alabamians what they called a “clear vote” on gambling, but filibusters from the bill’s supporters kept opponents from speaking until less than 30 minutes before the vote was called.

“It’s time the people understand what’s going on in the Senate,” Sen. Paul Sanford, R.-Huntsville, said after he realized there was not enough time to present his amendment.

“They don’t want the truth to be out. They don’t want to discuss the positives and negatives of this issue …,” Sanford said. “Why is it they stand up here and say let the people vote but they do not let the senators have a say on the bill? … This was a show for the media and the gallery, and it’s unfortunate. It is a disservice to the state of Alabama…. Today is a perfect example of how government does not function for the citizens of Alabama.”

Sen. Hank Erwin, R.-Montevallo, said the vote was a “display of brute, raw power.”

“They did their deed for the gamblers of Alabama,” Erwin said. “The gamblers are smiling big in Alabama tonight…. We fought gallantly, and I’m proud of all 13 [senators] that stood there tall and determined. They gave their best effort, but we came up short and it’s now up to the rest of the legislature.”

Godfrey said pro-gambling senators “rammed the bill through.”

“The people that introduced the bill began the filibuster of their own bill, and after so long they had a motion to cloture [close the debate and call for a vote],” Godfrey said. “So the opposing side never really got to say anything. It was never a debate. They talk about letting the people vote, but if they run it through the House like they did the Senate, only one side will get this story out.”

Sen. Scott Beason, R.-Gardendale, said he was shocked at how the bill was passed. “They didn’t even allow the opposition to offer an amendment … to make the bill more tolerable and better for the people of Alabama.”

Senators supporting the bill were so set on passing the bill, Beason said, they didn’t allow any of their own amendments to make the bill better.

“It just shows the power that gambling interests have in the state of Alabama right now,” Beason said. “They ran the senators. They ran the lieutenant governor. They had a complete, solid front, and we didn’t get to even talk. Of the four years I’ve been there [at the Senate], it has been the largest ramrod that I’ve seen.”

As it stands, SB380 redefines bingo to include machines that perform the game without player interaction and allows an unlimited number of gambling operations around the state. The revised bill requires at least a 25 percent tax on bingo revenue but leaves it to legislators to decide whether to add license fees to bingo operations.

Bedford’s bill also establishes a five-member state gaming commission appointed under the heavy influence of the Senate. Unlike his initial legislation, this bill does not repeal or affect any of the local constitutional amendments but does not require “bingo” operators to follow the amendments if their businesses are approved by the proposed gaming commission.

After the vote, Erwin tried to raise a concern with Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom, D.-Cullman, about possible conflicts of interest within the Senate body since some voting senators represent charities operating gambling facilities. Although Folsom took several voice votes supporting SB 380, he refused to answer Erwin, saying he did not hear the question.

“We were trying to raise the point that you’ve got a vote here that is very difficult to justify because it reeks of a conflict of interest,” Erwin said. “I tried to present the evidence to the lieutenant governor for a ruling, but he refused to hear the point of order.”

According to the Associated Press, Bedford said the state’s financial problems helped him pass the bill.

“We need the hundreds of millions of dollars of voluntary revenue that will come from electronic bingo,” Bedford said. “It’s time we end these nighttime raids without search warrants or subpoenas.”

The governor said the bill is about corruption, not gambling.

“This is the most corrupt piece of legislation ever considered by the Senate,” Riley said in a press release. “Gambling always brings corruption with it wherever it goes. Alabamians should ask themselves one question about this bill: Do they think we will have less corruption or more corruption if it passes?”

Riley calls the bill a blank check.

“It lets legislators come back next year and decide where to put casinos, and they will put them wherever the powerful gambling interests who contribute to their campaigns want them …,” Riley said.

“This bill doesn’t limit gambling. It expands it to potentially every community and to all forms of gambling, not just slot machines…. This bill also allows gambling interests to continue laundering campaign contributions through [political action committees]. Other states that allow gambling have restricted campaign contributions from gambling interests to prevent corruption. This bill does not.”

Although disappointed, Godfrey said gambling opponents at the statehouse “still trust in the Lord and know He is in charge.”
Sondra Washington writes for The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org) of the Alabama Baptist State Convention.

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  • Sondra Washington