Video bingo's future questioned in Alabama

AP News
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 10:14 AM

Electronic bingo operators in Alabama aren't calling off opening celebrations at multimillion-dollar casino venues despite a state Supreme Court decision that raised questions about the future of the popular games.

Casino operators also say they aren't intimidated by Gov. Bob Riley's declaration Monday that he considers all the machines in Alabama illegal and will prosecute violators "to the fullest extent."

"We are full speed ahead," Ronnie Gilley, developer of Country Crossing in southeast Alabama, said Monday.

Even though the legal future of the machines is still being decided, the size of the investment in the games has grown markedly in recent years.

Gilley's $87 million project is sheduled to open Dec. 1 with 1,700 machines in addition to restaurants, a bed and breakfast inn, a recreational vehicle park, and a concert amphitheater. Country star Kellie Pickler has the first concert Dec. 12. Work is scheduled to begin next year on hotels and a water park.

Victoryland, 15 miles east of Montgomery, was busy Monday getting ready for the grand opening celebration for its 300-room luxury hotel. The ceremony will feature free concerts Friday by the Temptations and Saturday by Randy Owen from the band Alabama, a hotel official said.

Victoryland's expansion continues next year with an 80,000-square-foot conference center. The hotel and planned conference center are next to Alabama's largest gambling hall with 6,000 electronic bingo machines.

At White Hall, where a raid led to the Supreme Court's ruling, the electronic bingo center has 900 machines, a restaurant, a concert venue and a giant electronic sign similar to those found on the Vegas strip.

Electronic bingo has been in Alabama almost two decades. The machines, which resemble slot machines, started in small storefronts, but they are becoming the main attraction in the Las Vegas-style entertainment centers.

Alabama's highest court issued a decision Friday saying that the machines seized at White Hall operate "almost exactly like slot machines," which are illegal in Alabama.

The court set out criteria for legal bingo games in that one location which, if applied statewide, could lead to a flurry of lawsuits or raids aimed at shutting down many other gambling halls.

"This ruling puts at jeopardy an industry that brings hundreds of millions of dollars to both state and local governments in Alabama," state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said.

Sparks, a Democrat, is running for governor on a platform of regulating, taxing and expanding gambling to generate state revenue.

The governor, a Republican, said none of the estimated 16,000 electronic bingo machines in Alabama can meet the criteria laid out by the court "and it's time for them to go."

Riley sent letters Monday to gaming commissions in seven states urging them to make sure the gambling machine manufacturers they regulate cease illegal activity in Alabama. The states were Nevada, New Jersey, Michigan, Colorado, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arizona.

Riley warned that his administration will prosecute manufacturers who don't comply.

"For our part, we intend to prosecute violations of our law to the fullest extent," he said in a statement.

The governor's press secretary, Todd Stacy, said he could not comment on specific actions planned.

Attorney General Troy King, who has differed with the governor on the legality of the machines, was reviewing the court decision and would comment later, an aide said Monday.

Legal battles over electronic bingo are being fought in several courts in Alabama. In one case, a judge forced bingo halls in Walker County to close last month, and electronic bingo halls in Jefferson County recently closed pending a court ruling. The judge hearing that case said Monday there is no longer a need to define bingo because the Supreme Court did it Friday.

The decision by the state's highest court stemmed from a raid by the Governor's Task Force on Illegal Gambling at the White Hall Resort and Entertainment Center, about 20 miles west of Montgomery.

The decision was not a final ruling in that case. But it may give an indication where the state's highest court is headed with two more pending cases questioning the legality of electronic bingo in Etowah and St. Clair counties.

White Hall has not changed its operation since Friday's decision, and its attorneys are confident they can defend its machines when a judge decides whether they meet the Supreme Court's criteria.

"We are moving forward," attorney Collins Pettaway Jr. said.