Not Your Grandma's Bingo
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Photos courtesy of the Alabama governor's office
All three types of machines pictured here were once in operation in Alabama before the governor's task force on illegal gambling confiscated them. Their owners deemed the machines legal electronic bingo, but the task force called them illegal slots.
It has the drama and suspense of a John Grisham novel: pre-dawn gambling raids by state troopers, rumors of political payoffs, rowdy demonstrations at the State Capitol and a fly-over at this year's Rose Bowl in California with a banner that read, "Impeach Corrupt Alabama Gov. Bob Riley."
All this fuss over bingo?
Not just any bingo, but electronic bingo, offered on machines that look, feel and play like slot machines — and therein lies the problem.
Riley, a lifelong opponent of gambling, is spending his final year in office defending his all-out assault to shut down and confiscate these machines, which he considers the same as illegal slot machines. Supporters, on the other hand, say the games are bingo, which is legal in the state, and their internal workings are different from slots.
The debate pits the Republican governor against not just the gambling industry, but also his own attorney general, Troy King, whom Riley appointed in 2004 and who opposes the governor's bingo raids, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature that unsuccessfully tried to expand and cash in on the state's electronic bingo by taxing it.
The continuing struggle has resulted in lawsuits, counter lawsuits, a private detective catching the head of the governor's illegal gambling task force winning $2,300 at slots in Mississippi, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson marching on the state capital calling the controversy a voting rights issue since voters at the county level approved allowing bingo in their jurisdictions. And while the lawyers fight it out, thousands of bingo hall employees worry about their jobs.
"It's a soap opera," says Natalie Davis, professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham. "It's mind boggling, but this is Alabama."
The state's 1901 constitution expressly forbids lotteries, but bingo is allowed in the 16 counties where voters sanctioned it. Since the governor launched his task force on illegal gambling , some 100 operations have already shut down either after a raid or fearing one. The governor says these operations are trying to disguise slot machines as electronic bingo. Many have sued to reopen. VictoryLand, the state's largest bingo casino with more than 6,000 machines, closed for about a month, on its own rather than open its doors to the task force. The complex reopened this month after the courts intervened and stopped a raid there.
The task force works with local law enforcement to rid the state of what Riley calls "an infestation of so-called bingo halls" that house the casino-like slot machines prohibited under state law. "We should get rid of illegal gambling for good wherever it exists in Alabama," the governor says.
Owners of the bingo operations say the machines are legal and suggest politics are at play. Ronnie Gilley, developer of an $87 million bingo and country music complex called Country Crossing in the southeast corner of the state, has hinted that the governor is looking out for the neighboring Mississippi Choctaw Indians who have casinos at the Pearl River Resort and who reportedly funneled money to the governor's campaign when Riley first ran for governor in 2002. But the governor has denied that claim. "Those accusations have been around for a long time. They weren't true then and they aren't true now," says Todd C. Stacy, the governor's spokesman.
Alabama's battle raises a question other states have asked: what's the difference between a slot machine and a device that looks like one, such as electronic bingo or a video-lottery terminal? The key, some say, is how the insides of these machines work: Individual slot machines determine the outcome at the machine and video-lottery terminals, also illegal in Alabama, are controlled by a central system. Most, but not all, electronic bingo machines operate on a similar central system where players compete against other players, but the number of winners is predetermined, much like scratch-off lottery tickets. These are "technical nuances that are not observable" by the average player, says Keith S. Whyte, executive director, of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
GOV CANDIDATES ON GAMBLING
Here's where the Republican
gubernatorial candidates stand:
- Robert Bentley , state representative, says because of the Legislature's failure to address the issue, voters should be given a simple "YES or NO" vote whether to allow gambling in any form.
- Bradley Bryne , former state representative, says if the Legislature passes a constitutional amendment legalizing gaming, and the people approve it, then he would tax and regulate the industry, but says "the benefits of gambling are illusory."
- Kay Ivey , state treasurer, says "While gambling glitters with the lure of easy money, it's only fool's gold."
- Tim James , real estate developer and son of former Governor Fob James, rejects gambling and says, "The concept of a winner at the expense of a loser is in conflict with the principle of the Golden Rule."
- Bill Johnson , former state economic development director, wants to be given the opportunity "to remove all gambling from our state or tax and regulate what is already here to fund shortages in education and other critical services."
- Roy Moore , former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, says the state should do what it can to protect the state from the "devastating effects of gambling
And the Democrats :
- Artur Davis , U.S. congressman, calls for a statewide up or down vote on electronic bingo. If approved, the Legislature would have 60 days to set a permanent tax rate and to establish a statewide gaming commission.
- Ron Sparks , state agriculture commissioner, says gambling is already here and should be taxed and regulated at the state level.
Term limits prevent Riley from running again this year, but the tumult he created is already the top issue in this year's gubernatorial elections. Most of the candidates — of both parties — say they personally oppose gambling, but punt on what to do about it in the state, saying voters should decide (see sidebar). In the meantime, several have called on Riley to stop the raids. "Midnight raids that leave thousands of workers unemployed are not the answer," said Democratic Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, who hopes voters elect him the first African-American governor in that state's history.
Riley ditched the gambling band wagon that most governors jumped on several years ago as a way to raise revenue. All but two states (Hawaii and Utah) allow some kind of gambling, and many cash-strapped states are exploring ways to expand the games they already have. Kentucky, for example, is once again debating whether to bring slots to its famed horse tracks. A proposal in New Jersey would allow Atlantic City casinos to have Internet gambling. Iowa is considering adding four more casinos to the 17 already licensed by the state there, and Connecticut is again eyeing the game of Keno.
State-sanctioned gambling, in general, is not without controversy. Opponents argue that any form of gambling begets crime, gambling addictions and other social ills that can end up costing the state more in the long run.
Gambling, always a divisive issue in the Bible Belt, has a sordid history in Alabama. During the 1940s and 1950s, Phenix City, on the banks Chattahoochee River opposite Columbus, Ga., was known for its illegal casinos and prostitution. When Albert Patterson, who was elected attorney general running on an anti-crime platform, was gunned down and killed in 1954 before taking office, people connected the killing to gambling.
"The shock of Patterson's murder was felt throughout Alabama and across the nation as people saw the crime and corruption always associated with gambling," writes former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, a Republican candidate for governor, best known for his refusal in 2003 to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state courthouse despite orders to do so from a federal judge. It took the National Guard to close down the illegal casinos in Phenix City, but its history is evoked by gambling opponents for what could happen to the rest of the state if illegal slots are allowed to proliferate.
Gambling also played a role in Riley's first gubernatorial election in 2002. He narrowly defeated incumbent Don Siegelman, a Democrat whose push for a statewide lottery to fund education was rejected by voters in 1999. Alabama is still without a lottery, one of just of seven states that don't have these games that collectively bring in about $17 billion in profits for states year.
Without a lottery or commerical casinos, Alabama ranks at the bottom among states in terms of gambling dollars. Excluding Indian casinos, the 48 states that allow gambling collectively took in $24 billion in 2007 while Alabama's two legal racetrack casinos brought in $2 million that year, according to the latest figures from The Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government. That is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Alabama's state general revenue.
As recently as his state of the state address in January, the governor touted his record for bringing in more than 143,000 new jobs in the last seven years, including those at Toyota, Mercedes and Kia supplier plants. But now his legacy may rest with gambling and the bingo halls that his task force has shut down.