“Illegal gambling is taking over this state,” was the warning issued on Tuesday on behalf of the Christian community by an interdenominational organization that lobbies the Alabama legislature.
The Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), led by executive director Dr. Joe Godfrey, is an organization that has been around for almost 80 years and describes itself as “Alabama’s moral compass.” It has been one of Alabama’s most active anti-gambling groups. The imminent re-opening of the Macon County casino, VictoryLand, served as the catalyst for Dr. Godfrey’s latest comments. Since 2010, when the casino was voluntarily closed after a state-attempted raid, the facility has opened and closed a few times.
While specific amendments contained in Alabama’s Constitution declare gambling illegal statewide, there are also county-specific amendments which legalize certain types of gambling, most notably dog racing and “bingo,” in a few counties, while remaining forbidden in others. The attorney general’s office was empowered by executive orders issued by then Governor, Bob Riley, to enforce the state’s gambling laws during his tenure. That authority was later rescinded by Riley who instead established the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling. Then in 2011 Governor Bentley’s first official act was to renew the AG’s authority.
However, in October of this year those orders were ruled unconstitutional by Circuit Court Judge William Shashy. The judge said the orders led to the laws being unequally enforced in different areas of the state. The focus being VictoryLand, which was had been singled out by state authorities and shut down repeatedly, while allowing similar casinos in Lowndes and Greene Counties to remain open. The judge’s ruling was responded to by Governor Bentley who issued another executive order which stripped the AG’s office of its authority to enforce gambling laws. That action enabled gambling in certain areas under the supervision of district attorneys and sheriffs.
A December 4 letter written by Macon County Sheriff Andre Brunson and District Attorney E. Paul Jones thanking the governor for the order, and according to a report by the Montgomery Advertiser, “outlined their plans” for inspecting the bingo machines at VictoryLand and preparing them for reopening. ALCAP’s Dr. Godfrey responded to the series of events by issuing a statement to Yellowhammer chastising the governor’s decision and stating that gambling is taking over the state, and the laws of Alabama should be enforced.
This year in the Alabama legislature an effort to expand casino gambling and legalize a state-sponsored lottery briefly gained momentum, but failed due to lack of support. The legislation’s most prominent proponent, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston), said while he won’t block anyone’s attempt to reintroduce it, he will not renew the effort in 2016.
Alabama’s history with gambling is long and sordid, including 2010 when 11 individuals, including multiple lobbyists and legislators, and casino owners Ronnie Gilley and VictoryLand’s owner, Milton McGregor, were indicted for allegedly conspiring to buy votes for an Alabama legislature gambling bill. Most of the accused were acquitted, but state representative Gilley, along with a lobbyist, took plea deals that included prison time.
Yellowhammer was told by spokesperson for Governor Bentley, communications director Jennifer Ardis, that he remains personally opposed to gambling and that the decision to reopen VictoryLand was not his, that “The Governor directed the enforcement of the State’s gambling laws be done at the local level with Sheriff’s and DAs.
While McGregor had hoped to be able to reopen VictoryLand in time for Christmas, the owner said that in two weeks he will announce when the facility will reopen.