by: John Zippert, Co-Publisher
Twenty persons, mostly from Greene County, testified at Tuesday’s hearing before the Alabama House Committee on Economic and Tourism Development in Montgomery. The hearing room was packed with Mayors, County Commissioners and community leaders from Greene County.
The hearing was chaired by Representative Becky Nordgren of Calhoun County, north of Anniston. About half of the seats for the committee were filled.
The public hearing was to get input from people concerning SB321, proposed by Senator Bobby Singleton, and HB545, proposed by Rep. A. J. McCampbell, which would repeal Greene County’s current Constitutional Amendment 743 and replace it with a new system to regulate and administer gaming in Greene County. These bills would substitute a five member racing commission, named by the Legislative Delegation, for the Sheriff who currently regulates bingo in Greene County.
These bills would also change electronic bingo from charitable sponsors to allow any entity, including for-profit businesses, to qualify to be licensed to operate bingo in Greene County. The bill would establish a tax based on the gaming gross revenues as a means of supporting municipalities, government agencies, education, the hospital and other agencies currently receiving distributions from electronic bingo in Greene County. There would be a 2% tax to the State of Alabama and a 10% tax to the Greene County Gaming Commission and a formula for the distribution of those funds.
The legislation does not indicate how many bingo licenses could be issued by the new Greene County Gaming Commission and no guarantee that the current license holders would receive priority or automatic consideration for renewal under these bills. There is an unstated belief that this entire effort to rewrite the Greene County gaming Constitutional Amendment is designed to allow for only one license to be issued by the new commission to Greenetrack, which was the situation prior to the election of Sheriff Joe Benison in 2010. One positive result of adopting these changes would be to create more transparency about the ownership of the bingo licenses granted in Greene County and the gross amount of money coming through electronic bingo in Greene County. The tax provisions of the new bills would reveal the gross revenues generated by gaming in the county. We currently do not know the actual and accurate amount of funds generated in Greene County by electronic bingo.
The publishers of the Greene County Democrat have been interested in publishing this information for the public since the onset of bingo in the county. We have been denied this information as being proprietary (a private secret) of bingo operators. In the materials issued on both sides of the debate on these bills, the estimated gross gaming revenues have been cited as between $30 and $99 million annually.
Speakers at Hearing
At the hearing four speakers spoke in favor of passing the SB321 and HB545 including Representative A. J. McCampbell,
Luther Winn, CEO of Greenetrack, Beverly Gordon of Greenetrack and former Probate Judge Julia Spree.
Rep. McCampbell said that his bill, HB545, would provide more “permanency for bingo in Greene County and better define electronic bingo under the laws of Alabama. It also provides for a five member gaming commission which would be better than one person making all the decisions.”
Luther Winn, CEO of Greenetrack spent most of his remarks questioning a postcard that was sent to Greene County residents opposing the bills. Winn said the Sheriff was not truthful about the funds from bingo and said based on marketing studies he had reviewed that $62 million would be available and all of the current recipients of funds would receive the same or more funds.
Beverly Gordon echoed these remarks and said, “We are trying to help Greene County not hurt Greene County. We are not against the Sheriff but we are trying to help him do his job better. Former Judge Spree said having a five-member commission would be more efficient, offer more transparency about revenue generation and allow the Sheriff to devote full time to law enforcement and not divide his time as the bingo regulator.
Rev. James Carter of Tishabee, a local businessman and former Commissioner, questioned, “whether SB321 or HB545 were ever local bills since they have never been discussed at public meetings or were run in the newspaper, before they were introduced in Montgomery. While I do not see eye to eye with Sheriff Benison on every issue, he was elected three times overwhelmingly by the people of Greene County to operate bingo in the county among his many duties.”
Mayors and council members from various Greene County communities spoke on the benefits of Constitutional Amendment 743 to their municipalities and were opposed to making any changes. Mayor Charlie McCalpine of Forkland said,
“This is not a local bill, it seems to be a private bill. We have enjoyed the benefits of 743 and done many things for the people in our community.”
Mayor James Gaines of Union said until the Sheriff instituted new rules the Town of Union was not getting funding from bingo on a regular basis but since the changes the city has had matching funds for a storm shelter and a housing rehab program for senior citizens. “ We know what we have but we don’t know what we are going to get with these new bills,” said the Mayor.
Sharon Washington, speaking for the Town of Boligee said, “We opposes these bills because they were not discussed in Greene County before they were introduced in Montgomery.”
County Commissioner Cockrell, who is connected with one of the charities at Rivers Edge Bingo, said “These bills will cripple Greene County Commission and the municipalities because it does not guarantee Bingo the same amount of funds as Amendment 743. Why fix something that is not broken.”
County Commissioner Turner, who is also, connected to Rivers Edge Bingo, said, “The County Commission has earmarked funds from bingo for infrastructure and we have given scholarships in my District. We oppose these bills because we do not know how this will turn out.”
Sandra Walker of Greene County said, “We support the Sheriff. We voted for him and elected him to oversee bingo. We do not know who will be appointed to this new gaming commission, so we do not support these bills.”
John Zippert, speaking as Chair of the Hospital Board, said that he is concerned about the impact of the two bills. “We could support these bills if they were amended to provide more protection for electronic bingo in Greene County, if the current bingo licensees were ‘grand-farther –in’ and protected to continue and if there were provisions to guarantee that the current beneficiaries of bingo received the same or greater payments, under these bills.”
Former Governor Jim Folsom said he was concerned about the impact of these bills on Greene County’s finances. In his remarks, he said, “None of the Legislators who represent Greene County and would pick the new gaming commission actually live in Greene County. The potential that for profit entities could be licensed to operate bingo in Greene County is a major change that has statewide implications. You might want to leave the existing charitable agencies operating bingo in place.
At the conclusion of the public hearing, Rep. Nordgren said, “We will not vote on this today. We also need to see how other related legislation on the statewide lottery and bingo in Macon County work out before we make a decision on these bills.”