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Senate bill would increase penalties for illegal gambling operationscomment (0)

April 25, 2013

By Jennifer Davis Rash

Political enthusiasts in Alabama know that one way to stir up a firestorm of debate is to attempt major moves in the area of legal and illegal gambling.

Each decade since the 1970s has had its own battle — horse racing, dog racing, lotteries and most recently slot machines labeled as electronic bingo.

The past two years have been a bit quieter on the gambling front than the previous two years were, but the constant ebb and flow of what is legal and illegal continues to create confusion for law enforcement officials, judges and political figures.

Is it possible this year’s legislators might pass a bill related to gambling that all sides can agree on?

Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, thinks it is. 

Senate Bill (SB) 446 — which would increase the penalty for promoting, conspiring to promote or possessing an illegal gambling machine from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C felony for those making profits over $10,000 — should be embraced by gambling opponents and gambling proponents alike, he said.

“This bill is not whether we are for or against legalizing gambling. It is whether we are for or against enforcing the law. … And it’s focused on the big fish, not the [small mom-and-pop shops or gas stations] where someone might not understand the law.

“If you are for gambling, bring a piece of legislation to legalize it … that’s your prerogative as a legislator,” Taylor noted. “But we have casino bosses, casino lawyers and some of the largest out-of-state casino machine makers in the world who are mocking Alabama’s law because it has no teeth.”

Attorney General Luther Strange agrees. 

Since coming into office in 2011, Strange has attempted to fight the electronic bingo gambling battle in the courts rather than by confrontation. But the problem he keeps facing is the weak penalties connected to breaking the law in this area.

Until the Alabama Legislature acts “to create an effective deterrent for large-scale illegal gambling, individuals will continue to engage in illegal gambling activity and openly defy the law. These individuals stand to make thousands of dollars in illegal gambling profits while risking only a slap-on-the-wrist misdemeanor charge,” he said.

“Law enforcement will continue to be forced to expend valuable resources to deal with the growing problem,” Strange added. “The Legislature must change that weakness in our law and create a badly needed deterrent for large-scale illegal gambling by increasing the penalty for operating an illegal slot machine casino to a felony.

“I urge members of the … Senate as well as the House of Representatives to pass [SB 446] as soon as possible,” Strange said. “This is my top legislative priority.”

Taylor said he has proposed similar legislation since 2010.

“This year’s bill is very simple — if you are running an illegal casino in the state, there will be real penalties, not a slap on the wrist,” he said, noting it would include machine manufacturers and businesses that transport the machines as well as the operators and owners. “It would be for anyone in the chain of the commercial enterprise,” he said.

In fact, SB 446 basically restores the original form of the law outlining punishment for illegal gambling operations that was passed in 1977, Taylor added. 

The felony penalties were reduced to misdemeanors in the 1980s. “That’s when we began to see gambling interest take a hold in Alabama.”

When the punishment for illegal gambling operations is not a deterrent, it is worth the risk for those in the business, Taylor said. “They know they will eventually get shut down, but they can make up to $1, $2 or $3 million a week in the process.” 

“By creating a felony and restoring the original felony penalties, we hope the casino lawyers will finally tell their clients that they aren’t sure they can keep them out of jail. … With a misdemeanor, the risk was affordable. But with a felony, I think it will serve as a deterrent.”

Joe Godfrey, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program, urges Alabamians to talk to their legislators about SB 446. 

“It’s urgent. We’ve got to get this taken care of. Otherwise we are going to continue to have these bingo halls opening up, the big operations like VictoryLand and others continuing to thumb their nose at law enforcement,” he said. “We are wasting valuable manpower and resources for law enforcement.

“This is an opportunity for us to become proactive and shut down these operations in an even stronger way. … Many have become apathetic to the situation, but we need people to hang with us to get this bill passed. It is a long-term solution to shutting down these illegal electronic gambling halls on a more permanent basis.”

Taylor agreed the public is exhausted with the electronic bingo debate. 

“The gambling interests have been successful in reframing the whole issue … saying the law is unclear and that we need to vote on it,” he said. “But clearly they are afraid of the bill. Casino lobbyists who haven’t been around all session were sitting front and center at the committee meeting when this bill was discussed.

“The amount of unexplained opposition in the Legislature is an example of how hard the gambling bosses are working behind the scenes to kill this legislation,” he noted. “I am very confident that … a vote to block this bill or a vote against cutting off the filibuster (that will surround this bill) is a vote for the gambling interest and Las Vegas-style casinos in this state.”

To read the full wording of the bill or to find out how to contact your senator or representative, visit www.legislature.state.al.us.

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