Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1505: Right and wrong vs. Senate customs

  What do we do when we are caught between institutional customs and right and wrong? I am facing such a dilemma at this very moment. The institutional customs of the Alabama Senate says that one senator does not get involved in another senator’s local legislation except to vote yes or no. On its face, that is as clear as black and white.

  The issue is electronic bingo, which the Alabama Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down. If a bingo bill affects only one particular county, it is clear where customs stop and a question of right or wrong begins. When that is the case, there is no question to ask and no answer to make. That is as clear as black and white.

  Sen. Bobby Singleton, who represents Greene County, introduced SB 340, a bingo constitutional amendment for the county. It was assigned to the appropriate local legislation committee. That committee immediately gave the bill a favorable report. It was immediately assigned to the Tourism and Marketing Committee, which immediately gave it a favorable report. It was moving like greased lightning. It was about to come to the Senate floor. The sponsor came to me in the early afternoon and said he had introduced a local bingo bill that would be coming up for a vote that very afternoon. He said the Greene County Commission would get about $250,000 a year and the Greene County Board of Education would get about a million. I told him that the commission currently receives more than $1 million as a result of a court settlement. It would be a great loss to the commission. It is not as clear as black and white.

  There is language in the bill that appears to allow Greenetrack to contract with other entities outside of Greene County to operate electronic bingo in other counties. Lowndes County, which I represent, has bingo and could be greatly affected. It looks like a local bill, but it could have a powerful impact all over the state. One private entity could operate bingo all over the state. It is not as clear as black and white.

  For many years, the Senate has recognized that gambling and hazardous waste bills are not like other local bills. Therefore, they are required by Senate Rule 50 to not only go to the appropriate local legislation committee but to a second general committee as well. Every gambling or hazardous waste local bill is treated differently from other local bills. Senators have a long history of treating gambling bills differently. It is not as clear as black and white.

  I helped bring electronic bingo to Greene County. I had represented Greene County in the Senate from November 1983 to November 1994. However, Sen. Charles Steele was representing Greene County in 2003. All constitutional amendments require a three-fifths affirmative vote of each legislative body. In the Senate, that means 21 of 35 Senators. Senator Steele did not have the votes. He asked me to help. I not only voted for the bill but helped secure other votes. It is not as clear as black and white.

  In the year 2008, a local constitutional amendment bill was introduced in the Senate. It would have taken the authority to regulate bingo from the elected sheriff of Greene County and given it to a commission appointed by the Greene County local legislative delegation. The sheriff had won the Democratic Primary, but the nomination was taken from him. He then ran as a write-in candidate in the general election and won. I stated that I was not going to vote for the local bill. I was treated as if my vote was not my vote and had to vote for the legislation. I was viciously attacked by Luther Winn, better known as Nat Winn, who was the chief beneficiary of the legislation I helped pass. He even wrote a letter to every legislator, attacking me. But as I considered the current bill, I tried to put this aside. It is not as clear as black and white.

  Our law firm has represented the Greene County Commission and the Greene County Board of Education for much of the last three decades. In the last couple of years, Luther Winn came before the Board of Education on more than one occasion and publicly attacked me. He tried to get them to fire my law firm. He tried in other ways to get the law firm fired. I tried to put that aside as I considered the current bill, but I had to wonder what would he do with the power provided by a monopoly on bingo. It is not just black and white.

  This bill is very different from every other bingo bill in the state. Every current bingo bill is based on charities operating the bingo. This bill gives a perpetual license to one private entity, Greenetrack. It will be in the Alabama Constitution. This is unheard of. Moreover, the bill would put three of the four current Greene County bingo operators slam out of business. In my opinion, this violates the United States Constitution. Also, this bill would take the regulation of bingo away from the elected sheriff and place it with a gaming commission that Greenetrack might well control. In addition, this bill removes all criminal penalties for misconduct, which is also unheard of. It is not as clear as black and white.

  As a strategic move, I introduced a new bingo bill for Lowndes County. It was immediately derailed. It did not go to the appropriate local legislation committee but directly to the Tourism and Marketing Committee. This kills it as local legislation. I don’t think that was by accident. It is not as clear as black and white.

  I knew from the very beginning I could never vote for this bill. The only question is whether I will fight it in every legal and moral way. Some changes have been made, but it is still a bad bill. What do we do when we are caught between institutional customs and right and wrong?

EPILOGUE – It’s so hard to do what is right. It’s a lot easier to follow customs or follow the crowd. What do we do when we have to choose between well-established customs and right or wrong? We all have to face that question at one time or another.

Update: Sen. Bobby Singleton's proposed constitutional amendment was defeated in the Alabama Senate yesterday afternoon.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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