The gaming issue continues to fester in Alabama as the VictoryLand Casino pursues the return of seized slot machines, and the Poarch tribe continues its push for gaming exclusivity.
Montgomery County Circuit Judge William A. Shashy scheduled a hearing for August 4 in the case of Alabama versus VictoryLand Casino in Macon County. In June, Shashy dismissed the state’s petition for forfeiture of 1,615 machines and $263,105 that authorities seized in a raid at the casino two years ago. In his ruling, Shashy said the state was “cherrypicking” by not enforcing the law equally against other casinos that offer electronic bingo machines, including the three Poarch Creek casinos and non-tribal facilities in Greene and Houston counties. “The Court cannot condone or perpetuate unequal treatment,” he wrote.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange’s office appealed Shashy’s ruling and disputed the claim of unequal enforcement. Assistant Attorney General John L. Kachelman III wrote that the state has taken enforcement actions against the Greene County and Houston County facilities and has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Poarch Creek casinos. “In light of the number and variety of cases the State has filed to enforce the gambling laws, it ‘blinks reality’ for the Court to find that the State has enforced the law selectively,” Kachelman wrote.
Lawyers for the state also said the machines are illegal gambling devices, but VictoryLand attorney Joe Espy asked Shashy to amend his ruling to declare that the machines are legal and to order the state to return them and the cash that was taken in the raid. Espy said the devices are allowed under a constitutional amendment approved by Macon County voters. In his ruling last month, Shashy did not directly address the machines’ legality.
Espy noted if VictoryLand could be assured it would not be raided again, it could reopen in four to six months.
Meanwhile, in an effort to gain exclusive rights to gambling in Alabama, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians began running television ads urging the state to strike a deal that would solve the pending budget crisis. The tribe has offered the state $250 million in an advance payment of gaming taxes for those rights plus permission to expand its gambling operations into north Alabama. Currently the tribe operates casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery that offer electronic bingo.
Poarch Band Vice Chairman and Government Adviser Robert McGhee added besides the initial $250 million loan, the tribe would give the state $40-$60 million annually for the duration of the compact.
The ad, which features a variety of individuals, says, “Gaming’s here, and Poarch does it right and the tribe wants to partner with Alabama. A compact has been discussed for years. It would generate state revenue and benefit you and me, you and me. Poarch can help fix this deficit mess.”
Governor Robert Bentley said the offer was “disingenuous” and a “mess.” He said, “We have not been offered $250 million by the Poarch Creek Indians. We can’t take money from them because it’s advance money that will be paid on things down the road. I really wish they would be honest with the state of Alabama. What they are saying now is just totally dishonest.”
Bentley said any payment in advance of a tax bill would amount to the state borrowing money from the tribe, which would be unconstitutional. He repeated the budget must be solved with a combination of tax increases and reforms, not from gambling dollars. “No gambling issue will put any money into the budget for 2016. We’ve got to fundamentally change the way we budget in Alabama so gambling is totally off the table as far as I’m concerned,” Bentley said in regard to the special session he recently called for August 3 to address the $200 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year starting October 1.
Bentley noted he suspects the tribe’s real motive is to block state Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s recently filed constitutional amendment to allow a state lottery and Las Vegas-style gambling, including poker, craps, roulette and more, at four dog racetracks around Alabama pending voter approval.
Bentley wants to limit gambling talk in the special session, but lawmakers can move forward with Marsh’s bill during the special session if there are enough votes. “It’s not about that’s the answer to the general fund. We have gaming in this state. It’s been here. We ask ourselves: ‘Should we receive revenue from those agencies that are already in the state?’” Marsh said. Even it Marsh’s bill passes the legislature, it would be too late to solve this year’s financial crisis.
Helping Marsh’s effort is the new Alabama Jobs Foundation led by former Auburn football coach Pat Dye and former Alabama Power Chairman Charles McCrary. The group said gaming would produce 11,000 new jobs.
However, agreeing with the governor, Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said gambling discussion “would be a distraction and a total waste of our time if we dealt with that in the special session. What we’re here to do is get a budget that starts October 1 and that’s what I intend for us to do in the House of Representatives.”