SB324: Greene County Computerized Gambling

*Update: This bill passed the Senate but is dead in the House*

–The following was written by A. Eric Johnston of the Southeast Law Institute

SB324 is a proposed constitutional amendment to redefine pari-mutuel wagering in Greene County. Pages 3 to 9 deal with setting up a commission and taxation. It is only page 2 for which there is concern.

Pari-mutuel horse and dog wagering is already regulated in Greene County by statute, viz., §45-32-150, Ala. Code. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled pari-mutuel wagering is not gambling, holding there is a “significant degree of skill involved in picking the winning dog … and that the parimutuel system of betting is used is not determinative of the winner, but of the purse.” Opinion of the Justices, no. 205.

This bill proposes to make such wagering a constitutional amendment. By doing so, it would amend §65 of the Constitution, which prohibits games of chance, i.e., gambling. Senator Singleton relies on two Attorney General opinions that computerized pari-mutuel wagering in this bill is not a game of chance. In opinion 2001-114, for a Mobile County law and opinion 2009-020 for a Jefferson County law, the Attorney General reviewed specific language permitting computerized pari-mutuel wagering. These opinions were based on restrictive defining language contained in the laws, and the italicized statement above. The statements that these two opinions support SB324 is a material misrepresentation meant to mislead members of an understanding of what is being proposed.

This is demonstrated by the language on page 2 of the bill which says the “pari-mutuel wagering on historical horse racing computerized machines may be conducted without regard to …” the type of graphics on the machine, whether the patron chooses a specific horse upon which to wager and whether he watches all or part of the race. There is absolutely no skill involved in the selection of the winning animal. It creates a pure game of chance. It is a slot machine by any other name.

Several CA’s permitting traditional charitable bingo passed in the 1980s which morphed into computerized machines called bingo, but after about a dozen Alabama Supreme Court cases were determined to be unlawful slot machines. The bingo CA’s clearly limited the activity to traditional paper card bingo. The problem with this bill is greater. It creates an exception to §65, allowing computerized gambling without regard to the restrictions of pari-mutuel wagering. It is computerized gambling with no limitations. As a CA, there is no opportunity to challenge it as unlawful. It is the law.

The last problem is that as a local law, legislators give deference to members for their local laws. The CA may be passed as a local law. However, when the CA modifies the general law like §65, it is something that adversely affects the entire state. Only Greene County voters will vote. This is not the first time that such a destructive strategy has been undertaken by gambling interests. If SB324 is not stopped this year, we will see many such bills to follow.