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Gambling debate heats up in Ala.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–Two Southern Baptist politicians are at the center of a gambling debate in Alabama, where the state’s governor says electronic bingo machines are illegal and the attorney general says they’re not in some cases.

Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican and member of First Baptist Church in Ashland, formed a Task Force on Illegal Gambling more than a year ago to enforce state laws that outlaw various forms of gambling including slot machines.

But a judge ruled March 8 that attorney general Troy King, a Republican and a member of First Baptist Church in Montgomery, should decide whether to prosecute gambling operators.

At issue are thousands of electronic bingo machines, which look and play like slot machines but dole out cash based on rapid, computerized games of bingo, according to manufacturers. Alabama’s constitution explicitly forbids slot machines, but some counties have passed constitutional amendments allowing traditional paper bingo for charity.

Sixteen counties and two towns in the state have such amendments, The Alabama Baptist reported, with four of the counties currently operating the video bingo machines.

Casinos have cropped up in Alabama to compete with Mississippi’s Gulf Coast complexes, and millions of dollars have been poured into the industry, with some casinos resembling those in Las Vegas. Glitzy high-rise hotels and other attractions are meant to make Alabama a vacation destination, the gambling industry says.

Last fall the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that electronic bingo machines, which are prevalent in the state’s casinos, are in fact an illegal form of gambling because the machines “have none of the elements of human skill and interaction that are fundamental to the game of bingo.”

Furthermore, the court said the machines “operate almost exactly like slot machines.” Riley said the ruling was a clear victory for his task force, which was set to shut down illegal gambling halls. King, though, asked district attorneys in counties with constitutional amendments allowing paper bingo to study the ruling and determine if the machines used in their areas are legal.

At their annual meeting in November, messengers to the Alabama Baptist State Convention passed a resolution on bingo gambling, noting that the Alabama constitution prohibits games of chance and the 18 areas with constitutional amendments only approve limited charity bingo for the benefit of nonprofit organizations and for no other purpose.

Local governing bodies, the resolution said, have used such amendments as a means of allowing unlawful electronic bingo gambling to proliferate. Alabama Baptists reaffirmed their opposition to electronic bingo gambling in the state and called on pastors to inform their congregations on the ill effects of gambling.

Southern Baptists in Alabama also asked the state legislature to oppose legislation that would permit or expand gambling of any type, including charity bingo.

Residents familiar with Alabama history have expressed concern that legalized gambling statewide could lead to a repeat of a dark part of Alabama’s past. Phenix City, on the Georgia border near Fort Benning, was known in the 1940s and 50s as the “wickedest city in America” because of gambling, crime and prostitution.

In 1954, Albert Patterson won a primary for state attorney general on the promise to clean up Phenix City, but before he could win the general election, he was shot outside the law practice he shared with his son John. The son was elected attorney general in his father’s place and went on to become Alabama’s youngest governor. His political career spanned half a century, The Birmingham News recounted.

Now 88, John Patterson told The News he has watched with dismay as electronic bingo has taken root in the state. “It’s just like Phenix City,” he said. “Gambling brings the bad people to town and brings out the bad in good people. There’s nothing about it that’s good.”

A sheriff’s deputy was convicted of Albert Patterson’s murder, and other officials were linked to the crime.

“There’s a group of people in the legislature who think gambling is the answer to all their problems,” Patterson said. “Gambling never solved any … problem.”

In more recent history, another southern state was able to hold back the trend toward expanded gambling. A decade ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that video poker games were illegal, and the state’s 34,000 video poker machines were reduced to contraband. Churches had organized a campaign against the machines, and former Gov. David Beasley, a Southern Baptist, called the video games the “crack cocaine of gambling.”

Riley, Alabama’s governor, used a significant portion of his state of the state address in January to warn against legalizing slot machines.

“I can’t imagine anyone who thinks the best way to help our economy is to have Alabamians lose billions of dollars gambling,” Riley said.

“This is not money spent in the community at local businesses where it would sustain jobs and help the local economy,” Riley said. “No, this money is taken out of that county and sent to out-of-state slot machine makers and gambling bosses.”

Any scheme that will legalize slot machines under the pretext of generating new revenue is the biggest hustle in Alabama’s history, the governor said.

“Of course, they don’t call it that. They call it bingo,” he said. “But you weren’t born yesterday and neither was I. This is nothing like bingo. These are slot machines pure and simple, and they are illegal for a reason. They are illegal because they’re bad for our families, bad for taxpayers and they’re bad for Alabama.”

The governor went on to describe the social cost of gambling, and he said that in states with casinos, for every dollar casinos contribute in taxes, they cost taxpayers at least three dollars in additional government services to deal with the devastation the casinos leave behind.

Riley that night urged lawmakers to reaffirm their commitment to the rule of law and to enforce the statutes forbidding illegal gambling rather than continuing to overlook casino operations.

Two weeks later, Mobile County district attorney John Tyson, commander of the governor’s task force on illegal gambling, attempted to raid two casinos, VictoryLand in Macon County and Country Crossing in Houston County.

Country Crossing closed its doors shortly before state troopers arrived, and Tyson considered that a success because the casino ceased operation and remains closed. But eventually a judge issued a restraining order on behalf of VictoryLand, which uses about 8,000 electronic bingo machines and employs 1,600 people. After being closed several weeks, VictoryLand reopened.

USA Today has described Alabama’s gambling fight as unique because electronic bingo operators have built the facilities and are employing thousands of people, daring the state to come after them in an economy where jobs are at a premium.

On March 8, circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr. ruled that the attorney general should step in and defend the state’s interests in gambling cases. His stance on whether the governor’s task force has the authority to enforce gambling laws was less clear.

Vance gave King until March 22 to advise the court of his position in the White Hall Entertainment Center electronic bingo case in Lowndes County.

On March 15, Riley appealed Vance’s ruling to the Supreme Court, and now the court must consider who should be in charge of bingo litigation. Riley’s attorneys argue that the governor as supreme executive of the state has the ultimate authority over state litigation if there is a conflict between the governor and the attorney general, The Birmingham News said.

“Judge Vance’s ruling represents judicial activism at its worst,” Riley said before appealing. “The law of Alabama clearly gives the governor the authority to designate certain active and retired district attorneys to appear in cases anywhere in the state, but Judge Vance has invented an additional requirement that the attorney general must give advance approval before they can participate in such cases.

“That may be what Judge Vance thinks the law should be, but that is not what the law is. Judge Vance has clearly exceeded his authority in legislating from the bench,” the governor said.

Riley also appealed to the Supreme Court another circuit judge’s March 5 ruling blocking the task force from taking action at any bingo casino anywhere in the state unless the local district attorney requests its assistance.

Riley and King, who once were political allies but have been outspoken opponents on the gambling issue, met for 90 minutes March 10 to discuss the fate of the illegal gambling task force.

“The governor and I had a very good conversation, a good exchange of ideas. Both of us have a lot to think about,” King said, adding that he would decide in a few days what to do regarding the task force.

Before the meeting, King said he planned to reiterate his advice that the governor go through the civil courts to seek a judgment from the Supreme Court on the electronic bingo machines in counties that have constitutional amendments rather than using raids to shut down facilities, The News said.

The attorney general also advised the governor to file a request for a declaratory judgment in each county where bingo operates. Riley maintains that the law is clear regarding the machines, and they are illegal.

On March 15, the Supreme Court vacated a lower court’s ruling in a 2008 declaratory judgment request from an Etowah County sheriff. Two groups in the county had applied for bingo permits, and the sheriff turned to the courts for guidance. The circuit court cleared the way for electronic bingo, but the Supreme Court said there were no opposing interests in the case and therefore no controversy the courts could deal with, The News reported.

Tyson, the task force chairman, said the Etowah County Circuit Court lacked the jurisdiction to make a decision.

“It means that we have yet another decision from the Alabama Supreme Court decrying the misuse of declaratory judgment actions to resolve the bingo gambling/slot machine questions,” Tyson said.

As the drama continues to unfold, gambling has become a central issue ahead of a June 1 gubernatorial primary. Ron Sparks, the commissioner of agriculture and a Democratic candidate for governor, said gambling should be decided by voters in counties that desire it and should be taxed and regulated.

Artur Davis, a U.S. congressman and another Democratic candidate for governor, said the state legislature should move past an impasse and approve a constitutional amendment on the question of gambling and let voters decide the matter in November, The News said.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore is among the Republican candidates for governor, and his opposition to gambling traces back to a 2001 opinion he wrote saying video machines violate the state’s constitution if a customer pays to play, the machine can award a prize and chance predominates the outcome of the game.

“Electronic bingo is another attempt to subvert the anti-lottery provision of the state constitution and should be stopped,” Moore said. “We need strict enforcement of the law.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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