Warren

Rep. Pebblin Warren has introduced a bill to allow the VictoryLand dog track to use the same sort of electronic gaming offered by the Poarch Creek Indians.

Believing Republicans in the Alabama House of Representatives will need Democratic help to pass a lottery amendment, Rep. Pebblin Warren (D-Tuskegee) has introduced a bill to allow the VictoryLand dog track to use the same sort of electronic gaming offered by the Poarch Creek Indians at their three casinos in the state.

House Bill 422, sponsored by Warren, is local legislation pertaining to Macon County that would amend the state constitution and allow bingo to be played there on any electronic machine authorized by the National Indian Gaming Commission and operated by any Native American tribe in Alabama.

Warren hopes legislators will support her bill to gain her vote for a statewide lottery, which has passed the Senate and will next be debated in the House.

“I think the leadership will work with it,” Warren said. “If they want the lottery bill passed, they know they don’t have enough Republican votes and they’ve got to have Democratic help. You help me and I’ll help you. It’s playing a political game.”

VictoryLand was raided by state authorities in 2013 and lost 1,600 gaming machines to seizure upon orders from then-attorney general Luther Strange. But Warren said much more was lost after VictoryLand was forced to close for three years.

“Everybody recognizes Macon County got a raw deal,” Warren said. “If this had happened in Baldwin County, nobody would be talking about it but you’re talking about a poor, predominantly African-American county. We were doing too good. Nobody had any problems and everybody was making money. VictoryLand paid about $45 million in revenue to the state through the years and then that was lost. Reopening it under this proposal might mean 2,200 jobs, maybe more.”

VictoryLand and the Poarch Creek casinos in Montgomery, Wetumpka and Atmore operate electronic bingo machines, which is considered Class II gaming under state law. But a lottery would constitute Class III gaming and detractors say the Poarch Creek Indians could be given an unfair advantage if they agree to a compact with the state to give their casinos access to gambling machines the dog tracks cannot get without violating state law. The Poarch Creek Indians are considered a sovereign nation and governed by federal law.

“VictoryLand has electronic bingo now but it’s on obsolete machines,” Warren said. “The Native Americans have the newer machines. People who gamble like the newer machines.”

The lottery bill which passed the Senate and is sponsored by Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore) would allow a paper lottery with all proceeds going to the General Fund. But the House will likely insist on some of the money going to the Education Trust Fund and perhaps attach amendments to test the political power of the Poarch Creek Indians, who are on record opposing the expansion of gambling and video gaming in Alabama without establishing a gaming commission.

Albritton said his lottery bill would preserve electronic gaming as it currently exists but would not allow its expansion.

“There will be no additional video gaming,” he said. “You’ve got what you have and we’ve got the lottery and that’s it.”

But Warren and other critics said Albritton is protecting the Poarch Creek Indians, who have donated to his political campaigns and operate a casino in his home district.

“The guy who is carrying the lottery bill got $62,000 from the Native Americans in his campaign and he had no opposition,” Warren said. “Their lobbyists were stopping everybody they contributed to in the hall the other day telling them to remember that. They’re trying to hold those folks hostage. We have allowed a monopoly. I’m trying to get us back to where we were in 2003.”

According to campaign finance records, Albritton received $40,000 in contributions from the Poarch Creek Indians since the start of 2018 and got $22,000 in the 2013-14 cycle.

State auditor Jim Zeigler, who was in Alexander City Tuesday, said the Poarch Creek Indians wield considerable clout.

“The Poarch Creek are a very powerful lobby,” said Zeigler, who considers himself a watchdog. “They have effective lobbyists and they have made a lot of campaign contributions. But all of that is legal.”

Warren said she hopes Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Huntsville) will put both her bill and the lottery bill up for debate on the same day.

“I’m ready to go,” she said. “I’m waiting for it to be put on the calendar.”

Zeigler said it’s more likely those who favor the lottery will kill its chances of being put to a public vote than those who oppose it.

“There are probably three groups who would favor the lottery if it’s written their way,” he said. “If it dies, it won’t be because of opposition, it will be because of people who are for the lottery and they didn’t get their way to set it up. These groups will block each other.”

Alabama is the lone Deep South state without a lottery and many officials feel the climate is right to change that.

“Polls show a solid majority of people want a lottery,” Zeigler said. “But if a flawed lottery bill passes the legislature, it may not (be approved in a public referendum). It looks like the legislature recognizes some money needs to go to education for the public to vote for it. The big issue is does it give the Poarch Creek Indians an unfair advantage?”

If the lottery bill passes, Gov. Kay Ivey has indicated she will allow it to be put before voters on March 3, 2020, the date of the presidential primary.

The Legislative Services Agency estimates the lottery would supply $167 million annually in net revenue once it is fully implemented.