Last week Governor Robert Bentley signed an executive order saying that gambling enforcement should be handled by district attorneys and local sheriffs and on Tuesday he said he believed it would clarify “the right approach” to the issue.
Attorney General Luther Strange released a memo in January stating that local officials would handle gambling prosecutions in the future (which itself followed a less forceful suggestion to the AG from Gov. Bentley). Bentley rescinded his 2011 executive order that gave the attorney general power over gambling enforcement. The moves would seem to indicate that both parties are backing away from the state’s long-standing battle with bingo operators over slot machine look-alikes. If so, it just might be what casinos such as VictoryLand in Macon County need to reopen. On Monday, a lower court order requiring that 1,615 electronic bingo machines seized from VictoryLand by the attorney general’s office in a 2013 raid be returned by November 16 was blocked by the Alabama Supreme Court.
Personally opposed to gambling, Bentley criticized efforts by the legislature to address a shortfall in the General Fund with gambling legislation. However, last week Bentley agreed with the Legislature’s two budget chairs that said a minimum of $30 million in new tax revenue might be required next year, and that they fully expect legalized gambling to be one of the options explored. According to experts revenue from gambling doesn’t grow and it’s unlikely to provide sustained stability to the state budgets.
While gambling is prohibited by the Alabama Constitution, carve outs make it viable in the state through individual amendments, however deciding what type of gambling is allowed by those amendments is at the core of the dispute. The attorney general’s office argues that the machines with digital displays and sounds are illegal, while casino operators say the displays are just for entertainment purposes. They contend that the machines play the game of bingo which the state law allows. The use of similar machines has been ruled against twice by Alabama judges in Houston and Lowndes counties. In those cases the justices determined that bingo play is constituted by active player participation, the announcement of numbers, marking cards, and a player announcing a win, or traditional bingo.
Bentley noted that he had no part in the process and that he wouldn’t oppose Alabama citizens voting on a constitutional amendment addressing gambling in the state. An amendment such as that would require three-fifths approval by the Legislature. Upon approval it would then be sent to voters for approval.
Meanwhile, VictoryLand’s owner Milton McGregor hopes that despite the order by the Alabama Supreme Court staying the required return of the seized machines he will be able to reopen his casino by Christmas so that people can have jobs. That decision hinges on the owner’s ability to obtain new electronic bingo machines, according to Joe Espy, attorney for McGregor. Espy said he is optimistic that VictoryLand will succeed in doing just that.