Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Star-Studded Committee Meetings in both the Alabama Senate and House

It is not everyday that you sit down in a committee meeting at the Alabama Statehouse only to have country music legend George Jones take the seat behind you accompanied by his wife, see Darryl Worley standing in the back of the room, and then hear Tracy Lawrence sing the chorus to “Paint Me a Birmingham” live at the request of the committee chair, but that is exactly what happened during the House Tourism and Travel Committee meeting this afternoon.

What would bring such an assortment of country music stars to the statehouse for a committee meeting? Both the House and Senate committees on tourism addressed bills today relating to electronic bingo in the state of Alabama (HB676, SB470, SB471), and the Country Crossings development in Houston County which these personalities are involved with is slated to feature electronic bingo machines as a portion of the entertainment it will provide.

This has been a controversial and hot topic of discussion recently, and the issue at hand, electronic bingo, can easily become convoluted to appear as a disagreement over whether or not Country Crossings should come to fruition. That is not the case. The developers of Country Crossings stated during the committee meetings today that because of last year’s real estate debacle and current conditions in the economy they are unable to borrow and / or find enough investment dollars to cover the costs that will be incurred up-front to proceed with the project. Mr. Ronnie Gilley told the committee today that an operation such as Country Crossings usually operates in the red for the first 3 – 7 years, and they cannot afford to sustain losses for such a long period of time; however, by adding the electronic bingo element to the project, those dollars can be made up in a shorter period of time acting as an “economic catalyst”, and thereby, allowing them to continue as planned.

Virtually the same discussion took place in both the House and Senate meetings. Opponents of electronic bingo take the position that it is illegal according to a 2004 ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court in addition to an interpretation of Section 65 of the Code of Alabama, and bills HB 676 and SB 471 would seek to legalize what is currently illegal.

Proponents of these bills argue that by enacting this legislation, the state will benefit financially from the tax dollars coming from these entities, be able to control the spread of gaming by limiting electronic bingo to only nine venues throughout the state, and will establish a gaming commission to oversee licensing and regulation of the operations. It also provides for an initial infrastructure prerequisite of $100 million that any existing or future development must meet before electronic bingo would be permitted on the premises.

The opposition states that these criteria, in essence, would create a monopoly on gaming in the state of Alabama benefiting only a few individuals who are already invested here as SB471 also includes a profit-sharing clause.

An alternative bingo bill presented by Senator Erwin, SB 470, which would prohibit the use of an electronic device to engage in gambling activity and provide that no current or subsequent constitutional amendment may authorize such electronic device was sent back to sub-committee for review. SB 471 did not make it out of committee either and is scheduled to be voted on at the next committee meeting. HB 676 was passed by the committee.

If any version of these bingo bills is passed, it will go before the people of Alabama for a vote in the form of a constitutional amendment.