State House Committee holds hearing on bill to change Amendment 743 for bingo in Greene County

News Analysis
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.”

Electronic Bingo Amendment passes out of committee with small changes

Senator Bobby Singleton contacted the Democrat this week to advise that Senate Bill 340, which amends and changes electronic bingo in Greene County, had been approved in the Senate Tourism Committee and was scheduled for a vote on the floor of the full Senate on next Tuesday, April 5, 2016.
Singleton said State Representative Artis McCampbell was moving the bill in the House of Representatives for passage by the full body.
Singleton said that he and McCampbell had made some small changes in SB 340 based on discussions with legislators and other community leaders who contacted them about the bill.
“We changed the section on the composition of the new Greene County Gaming Commission. There will still be five members. One selected by the Governor and the remaining four by the Legislative delegation. We removed the one to be appointed by the 7th District Congressperson. This means that three or four will be from Greene County,” said Singleton.
“We met with Senator Sanders and he explained the court ordered settlement agreed between the Sheriff and the County Commission. We have adjusted the percentages for the Greene County Commission to be compatible with this court order,” said Singleton.
We did not make any other changes in the bill, which still provides for electronic bingo only at a racetrack facility licensed for pari-mutuel wagering in the county. Only Greenetrack qualifies under this definition. The other facilities licensed by the Sheriff would have to close under the current language in SB 340.
Singleton says, “We really designed this bill to support Greene County residents and owners. We are concerned that some of these facilities have out-of-town owners who drain money out of the county. They do not provide living wages and fringe benefits to their employees. We are looking at the quality of the Greenetrack facility – not the quantity of other facilities which have not benefited Greene County.
Former Greene County Commissioner William “Nick” Underwood, who is an attorney associated with the River’s Edge Bingo operation writes a letter to the editor this week (see page 4) wherein he disputes Singleton and McCampbell’s rationale for SB 340.

Bill based on estimate of $50 million annual gross revenues Proposed Bingo Amendment causes concern and discussion by Greene County leaders

News Analysis By: John Zippert, Co-Publisher

track

Senate Bill 340, proposed by State Senator Bobby Singleton, which changes the current operation and regulation of electronic bingo in Greene County, has caused much concern, discussion and dissention among county leaders.
In an exclusive interview with Senator Singleton last week, he said, “Representative McCampbell and I discussed the problems with electronic bingo in Greene County.
Among them the threat of raids by the state on bingo as illegal gambling; the conflicts between the Sheriff and County Commission, which have led to lawsuits; and the proliferation of bingo parlors which do not employ as many people, at good wages, as when bingo was centralized in one place.”
Singleton said that he and McCampbell decided to develop a proposed amendment to Greene County’s Amendment 743, authorizing electronic bingo, which would clarify the legality of bingo; require that electronic bingo be played at a licensed racetrack facility where pari-mutuel wagering is currently legal; codify and provide a new formula for the distribution of bingo funds, including a tax (4%) to the State of Alabama and a local gross receipt tax (8.5%) to benefit Greene County government, agencies and non-profits; and move the regulation and administration of electronic bingo from the Sheriff to a new Greene County Gaming Commission. Limiting electronic bingo to a racetrack in Greene County where pari-mutuel wagering is legal, limits the operations to Greenetrack and would likely lead to a phase-out of the other facilities licensed by Sheriff Benison. The owners and employees of these facilities are opposed to this amendment
Singleton said that he, McCampbell and other members of the Greene County legislative delegation plan to hold public meetings in Greene County to explain the bill and its impacts before a November vote by the citizens of Greene County on the revised Constitutional Amendment. If the proposal passes the Alabama Legislature with no dissenting votes then it only requires a referendum vote in Greene County, however, if there is opposition from one member of the Legislature, then a statewide vote will be required.
Greene County Sheriff Jonathan Benison is opposed to the bill because it will strip his office of control of electronic bingo. In an open letter, printed in full on page 4, he argues that the legislation will return control of bingo to the 73 for-profit stockholders of Greenetrack to operate as an unfair monopoly.
Benison points to the impact of his monthly $200 per bingo machine tax and the benefits that the four bingo parlors have generated in income and jobs for the county.
Benison makes the point that many other public officials in the county and municipalities have made that Singleton and McCampbell did not publicize, discuss or seek input on their proposal before introducing it in the Alabama Legislature. Benison says in his letter, “it was introduced in a stealth manner designed to catch people off guard.” Singleton says that he and McCampbell were concerned that bingo was a target for state action and wanted to head this off.
The bill clarifies and legally allows electronic bingo “on any machine or device that is authorized by the National Gaming Regulatory Act by 25 U. S. C. Section 2701, and which is operated by any Native American tribe in Alabama.”  This would legalize any electronic bingo machine or device, which was approved by the Federal government for use in Indian casinos, to be used in Greene County.
The proposed revised amendment calls for distribution of funds for a state gross receipts tax (4%) and a local gross receipts tax (8.5%) on gaming revenues at the racetrack operating bingo. These taxes would be levied on the gross revenues, which are defined as the total amount of money played on the electronic machines less the value of prizes and winnings paid to the players. The gross figure would be determined before costs of operating the bingo facilities were applied.
Singleton said in the interview, that “he estimates the annual gross revenues from electronic bingo would be at least $50 million and may be 20 to 30% higher.” Based on this estimate the State of Alabama would receive $2 million or more in new tax revenues per year from bingo in Greene County.

The local gross receipts tax of 8.5% would generate  $4.25 million in revenues, which would be divided as follows:

• .5% to the Greene County Racing Commission to license and regulate bingo:

• .5% to the Greene County Commission;

• 1.5%  to Greene County Commission for municipalities in Greene County, based on  population;

• .5% to the Greene County Firefighters Association;

•  2 % to the Greene County Board of Education;

• .5% to the Greene County E-911 Communications District;

•  1% to the Greene County Hospital and Nursing Home;

•  .25% to Greene County Industrial Development Board;

•  .25% to Greene County Ambulance Service;

•  .75% to the Greene County Housing Authority;

•  .75% to the Greene County Gaming  Commission, for     distribution to non-profit organizations, that provide  services to residents of Greene County.

Some agencies will receive more than they are receiving now and others, like the Greene County Commission and the Sheriff’s Office, will receive less.
One benefit of this plan is that the people of Greene County will know the gross revenues generated by bingo and exactly how they are being distributed. Currently the total gross revenue going through the four licensed bingo parlors is not publically available.
The new Greene County Gaming Commission will consist of five (5) members, all of whom must reside in the Seventh Congressional District and at least two must be residents of Greene County. The Commission will be named as follows: one by the Governor, one by the Congressperson, one by the State Senator and two by the State Representatives in the delegation. Some feel this will take control of bingo out of the hands of Greene County citizens and allow other people to make critical decisions for Greene County.

Singleton introduces bill to change Greene County bingo amendment

Bobby Singleton

Senator Bobby Singleton

State Senator Bobby Singleton recently submitted a bill to change Constitutional Amendment 743 regulating bingo in Greene County. The proposed amendment to our current amendment was referred to the State Senate’s Local Legislation Committee.
Singleton’s amendment would make significant changes to the current operation and regulation of electronic bingo in Greene County.
First, the amendment would clarify and specifically allow electronic bingo in Greene County “on any machine or device that is authorized by the National Gaming Regulatory Act by 25 U. S. C. Section 2701, and which is operated by any Native American tribe in Alabama”. This would legalize any electronic bingo machine or device, which was approved by the Federal government for use in Indian casinos, to be used in Greene County.
Second, the amended bill limits bingo gaming to a licensed racetrack in Greene County where pari-mutuel wagering is currently legal. The only facility in Greene County currently meeting this criterion is Greenetrack. While not stated, it would seem that this change would restrict electronic bingo to one facility – Greenetrack – in Greene County. The future operation of other bingo halls in Greene County is unclear and would possibly depend upon a “sub-license” from the one recognized racetrack in Greene County.
Third, the amended bill provides for a state gross receipts tax (4%) and a local gross receipts tax (8.5%) on gaming revenues at the racetrack operating bingo. These taxes would be levied on the gross revenues, which are defined as the total amount of money played on the electronic machines less the value of prizes and winnings paid to the players. The gross figure would be determined before costs of operating the bingo facilities were applied.
The current bingo parlors in Greene County have never publically revealed their gross revenues, so the public does not know what this taxing formula will produce in revenues and whether those amounts are fair. There is also a formula, in the amended bill, for distribution of the 8.5% monthly local wagering tax, with 1.5% retained by the Greene County Gaming Commission (created by the bill) for its operations; 1.5% to the Greene County Commission; 1.5% to the Greene County Commission for distribution to municipalities, based on population; 2% to the Greene County Board of Education; 1% to the Greene County Hospital and Nursing Home; 0.5% to the Greene County Firefighters Association; 0.25% to the Greene County Industrial Board; 0.25% to the Greene County Ambulance Service; 0.75% to the Greene County Housing Authority; and 0.75% to the new Greene County Gaming Commission for distribution to nonprofit organizations that provide services to residents of Greene County.
There is also a “local bingo game vendor tax of 4%, which is levied on the gross revenues collected by bingo game vendors from leases or revenue sharing agreements with a racetrack”. This vendor tax will be shared between the Greene County Sheriff’s Department and the Eutaw Police Department, based on population ratio.
Fourth, a five person Greene County Gaming Commission is created to “implement, regulate, and administer bingo gaming” in the county. This Commission would replace the current role of the Sheriff of Greene County in regulating and distributing the proceeds of electronic bingo gaming in the county.
The five member Greene County Gaming Commission would be named as follows: one appointed by the Governor of Alabama; one by the U. S. House Representative for the Seventh Congressional District (now Terri Sewell); one by the State Senator for the 24th District (currently Bobby Singleton) and two by the State House of Representatives delegation for Greene County. The members of the Gaming Commission will serve five-year terms and be subject to the regulations of the Alabama Ethics Commission. They should all live in the 7th Congressional District and at least two must be residents of Greene County.
This proposed legislation is now in the Senate Local Legislative Committee. It would have to be approved by this Committee, the full Alabama State Senate, the Alabama House of Representatives and signed by the Governor. Once passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor it would be subject to a Constitutional Amendment vote by the people of Greene County. If the Local Legislation were opposed by any one legislator, it would then also have to be voted on as a Constitutional Amendment by all of the people of Alabama.