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Rep. Sells: Gambling is coming

Gambling is coming to Alabama.

That was the message Rep. Chris Sells had for the Rotary Club of Greenville on Thursday.

“Gambling is coming strong,” Sells said.” “I keep telling people that they are going to shove it down our throats, and they say, ‘No, they can’t do that. They can’t shove it down your throats.’ They can. All they need is enough votes to do it, and it’s over with.”

Sells said that those with gambling interests are already playing a significant role in the state, particularly the state’s finances.

“I don’t know much about politics, and it might not be the right thing to say, but I’m going to tell you what I think,” Sells said. “One of the reasons we couldn’t get a budget last year was because of gambling. Gambling interest didn’t want us to come up with some revenue to solve the problem. They want the problem to be there so they can be the answer. That’s where we’re at.”

Sells said this year’s budget crisis was, in his opinion, a play to garner support for gambling legislation.

“The state parks, the driver’s license offices — none of that is in as bad of shape as they want it to look,” Sells said. “They want it to look as bad as it can look so everyone will say, ‘Go raise taxes or pass gambling legislation. The budget in 2014 was $1.7 billion. In 2015 it was $1.8 billion. In 2016 it’s $1.7 billion, so it’s not like the sky fell.”

Sells, a newcomer to state politics, said he’s trying to work himself into a position to ensure that if gambling in the state is legalized, a portion of the taxes collected from gambling will be used for economic and workforce development.

“I want to be in a position where I can say, ‘Hey, I want a portion of this tax that we can use for economic development and workforce development.’ Money alone isn’t going to solve our problems,” Sells said. “We’ve got to improve our workforce and we’ve got to have the jobs. That’s what’s going to help the state. That’s what I’m pushing for. We’re only going to get one shot at it because once it passes it’s going to be gone. We’ve got a chance to make it work.”

In November, Gov. Robert Bentley issued an executive order removing control of gambling enforcement from Attorney General Luther Strange and directing that all gambling laws be enforced by county sheriffs and local district attorneys.

The move rescinded and repealed his first executive order, issued in 2011, which abolished former Gov. Bob Riley’s gambling task force and charged the attorney general’s office with enforcement of the state’s gambling laws.

The change effectively allows electronic bingo operations at VictoryLand in Macon County and GreeneTrack in Greene County to take place without the threat of a raid, since local officials and law enforcement have stood by the legality of the businesses. The decision will likely also allow facilities in other counties, such as White Hall and Southern Star in Lowndes County, to reopen.

Sells said the door has been opened and shutting it will be difficult.

Gambling is the most complicated bill you can draw up. The resources and the money is all on the gambling side. Someone like me can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea about gambling,’ but I don’t have the money or the resources to put it together. I’m talking to people and working on some stuff because I believe we’ve got one shot. Either we can pass gambling legislation that benefits the state or we’re going to pass legislation that benefits the people in the gambling business. That’s just what’s going to happen.”