BY GEORGE ALTMAN
Mobile Press-Register photo: Visitors to the Wind Creek Casino in Atmore play some of the electronic bingo machines at the facility, which is owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. A bill in the Alabama Legislature would allow state-regulated facilities to offer the same games that are offered at Indian casinos.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A bill that would allow state-regulated casinos to offer the same games as Indian casinos, as well as shield cruise ship casinos from gambling raids, passed a House committee on Wednesday.
The approval, on a voice vote, followed hours of discussion before the House Tourism and Travel Committee, mostly by members of the public. State House security estimated that 450 to 500 people came to see the first vote on a gambling bill in the 2010 legislative session.
Among them were several representatives of Country Crossing, a new gambling and country music venue that has been targeted by Republican Gov. Bob Riley, as well as a handful of cruise industry officials.
“I think the music industry, and I think the cruise-line industry, is critical to the development of the tourism industry in our state,” said Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay and the committee chairman. “It’s very important, from the standpoint of tourism, that we pass this legislation.”
Opponents argued that cruise ships are in no real danger of being raided, and that gambling is an economic drain. Joe Godfrey, executive director of the faith-based Alabama Citizens Action Program, said casinos are “preying upon the weakness” of Alabamians.
“This bill will just expand their predatory practices,” he said. “It’s not the cash cow that everybody says, and it’s money that comes from the losers.”
For more than a year, officials under Riley’s direction have cracked down on gambling across the state. The action has been focused on controversial gambling machines that look and play much like illegal slots but pick winners through fast, computerized games of bingo, a game that is allowed in parts of Alabama.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said it is meant as a stopgap measure to protect casinos and cruise ships from further raids by Riley’s antigambling task force. As such, all of the bill’s provisions will expire in early November, by which time Black hopes to have enacted a broader constitutional amendment on gambling.
Black’s bill would allow casinos like VictoryLand in Macon County and Country Crossing in Houston County to offer the same types of games permitted for Atmore’s Wind Creek Casino & Hotel.
As an Indian casino run by Poarch Creek Indian Gaming, Wind Creek is governed by federal, rather than state, rules and officials. State-regulated casinos have long expressed concerns that Indian casinos could gain an advantage as a result of state crackdowns.
The measure gained bipartisan support Wednesday, with Rep. Warren Beck, R-Geneva, speaking in favor of it. While Democrats were largely behind Black’s bill, some expressed concern that it restricted new casinos from opening in their districts. Black said he would work to address that issue in coming weeks.
Maritime protections were added to the bill after Morrow sent letters to dozens of officials last week expressing concern that cruise ships, as well as ships with casinos being repaired in Mobile shipyards, could be in violation of state law.
Riley’s office said Wednesday that the protections are not necessary, as federal law already prevents raids on such vessels. Spokesman Jeff Emerson said that expressing fear over possible raids is a “red herring” to help pass a bill under which “cruises to nowhere would be allowed to conduct full-scale casino gambling, including card and table games and slot machines.”
Leon Maisel, president of the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the committee that the issue puts Alabama’s reputation as a cruise hub at stake.
“Gaming is part of the cruise industry. It needs to be protected by the state,” Maisel said.