Victoryland Casino lays off several hundred after Alabama Supreme Court shuts down electronic bingo

Review Journal
Wild Casino

Victoryland Casino in Macon County had to lay off several hundred employees when it shut down electronic bingo games this month because of a court order, said Dr. Lewis Benefield, a Montgomery veterinarian who is president of the casino.

Benefield said the casino is hoping to replace the lost business with new machines that allow gamblers to bet on historical horse races. The casino will continue to offer wagering on simulcasts of horse races and greyhound races held in other states and countries. The Birmingham Race Course, where Benefield is also president, has offered historical horse race betting for several years, along with simulcasts.

As for electronic bingo, Benefield said Victoryland’s longtime dispute with the state officials over the legality of those games is over, at least for now. For more than a decade, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that the games are illegal slot machines, not bingo. Victoryland’s bingo operations have closed and reopened more than once after enforcement efforts by the state attorney general’s office.

“I’m not going to do what maybe some people have done in the past and say, ‘Hey, screw it. We’re going to still offer it.’ I’m not going to offer electronic bingo,” Benefield said. “I’m fully running the thing within the law and what the law allows me to do.”

The Alabama Constitution prohibits lotteries and most forms of gambling. The Legislature and voters have approved limited exceptions.

In the 1970s and 1980s, lawmakers approved bills allowing pari-mutuel betting on horse racing and dog racing, live and simulcast, in Greene, Jefferson, Macon, and Mobile counties.

In 2003, Macon County voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow bingo, and Benefield said the intent was electronic bingo. But the Alabama Supreme Court has defined bingo as the traditional paper form of the game. The court has ruled that electronic bingo machines, which look and operate more like slot machines, are illegal gambling devices.

The most recent decision came on Sept. 30, a ruling that led to the halting of electronic bingo at White Hall Entertainment and Southern Star casinos in Lowndes County, as well as at Victoryland.

“We passed a constitutional amendment in 2003,” said Benefield, who is the son-in-law of Victoryland founder Milton McGregor, who died in 2018. “It was voted on by 76 percent of the people in Macon County. We had every intention and everybody knew that what we were wanting to do was the same thing that the Native Americans were doing, which was electronic bingo.”

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians offers electronic bingo at its casinos in Atmore, Montgomery, and Wetumpka. Former Attorney General Luther Strange sought to shut down those games about 10 years ago, but federal courts ruled the state had no jurisdiction.

Benefield said his hope is that the Alabama Legislature will approve a constitutional amendment for a lottery, casinos, and a gambling regulatory board similar to what lawmakers have proposed the last two years, bills that have died. Voters would have the final say if legislators approved the plan. It’s unclear how much support that will have during the legislative session that starts March 7, although the Alabama Senate passed a similar plan two years ago and Gov. Kay Ivey has expressed her support for giving voters a chance to approve a comprehensive gambling bill.

“My goal is that we’re going to try to pass something in the Legislature that will help Alabama,” Benefield said. “Which will be at the four racetracks is to have full casino gaming. I think that’s the only thing that will allow us to compete with the other states. I think that’s the only thing that will allow the four racetracks to become a destination point like they used to be and be able to do a lot of economic development. Stop Alabamians from going over the state lines and have people from other states come to us. And be able to capitalize on a fair tax revenue and provide those tax dollars for the state.”

Based on recent history, Alabama gambling proposals are longshots. More than 180 gambling bills have died in the Legislature since voters rejected Gov. Don Siegelman’s lottery in 1999, according to a gambling study group Ivey appointed that issued a report in December 2020. Meanwhile, 45 states have lotteries, including the four that border Alabama.

Opposition to lottery and gambling bills comes in several main areas. Some oppose gambling on moral grounds or because they say a lottery would hurt low-income families who would buy a large share of the tickets. Lawmakers in counties with local bingo amendments have sought protection for the revenue and jobs those games produce. Another point of contention is legislation that names the four greyhound tracks as casino sites, rather than a more open competition for those sites.

Benefield, reiterating a point made by the governor’s study group, said uniform regulation of gambling is important and notes the prevalence of electronic bingo in Jefferson County.

“By my count, there’s about 20,000 electronic bingo machines in Jefferson County, and I think they’re all illegal,” Benefield said. “If I thought they were legal, I’d be offering them at the Birmingham Race Course, and I don’t. I think electronic bingo is illegal in Jefferson County.”

Ivey’s study group reported that a lottery, casinos, sports betting, and regulation of gambling could generate $510 million to $710 million a year in state revenue and create 19,000 jobs.

Benefield said he hopes the historical horse racing machines are popular enough to draw gamblers to replace the electronic bingo business at Victoryland. The casino, about 20 miles from Montgomery, competes with the Poarch Creeks’ electronic bingo casinos in Montgomery and Wetumpka.

“Both of those along with Victoryland draw from the same customers,” Benefield said. “So I don’t know how successful the historical horse racing games will be against the bingo games that everybody is used to in the Montgomery area.”

He said he hopes business picks up enough to rehire some of those who lost their jobs.

“If I can get back to that I’m going to certainly go after and get them because we had some of the best employees in the state,” Benefield said.