Poarch Creeks seek compact, north Alabama site

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MONTGOMERY, Alabama — For 15 years, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians has tried to persuade Alabama politicians to sit down and discuss a compact with the tribe.

Now, with gambling being discussed in the Alabama Statehouse, the tribe is trying to renew those conversations — talks that could include exclusive rights to run gambling in the state or possibly a new site in north Alabama — and is critical of a proposal that would put casinos at state dog tracks.

Robert McGhee, the tribe's governmental relations adviser, said a draft bill before senators that would allow casinos at four, but likely seven locations, across the state, "is not good for the state of Alabama."

"We think we have a better approach, one that we hope we have the opportunity to be heard and to sit down and discuss before we go down this road that we might not be able to get back from," McGhee said.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh is attempting to jumpstart the conversation on gambling as a revenue source. He sent senators home over the weekend with a draft of a broad gambling bill that would establish, if lawmakers and voters approve the idea, casinos at dog tracks in Mobile, Birmingham, Macon County and Greene County, and a state lottery. Marsh said he based the bill off a study by Auburn University Montgomery that four casinos and a lottery would generate $400 million in new state revenue - with $332 million of that coming from a state lottery.

The talk of gambling comes as Alabama lawmakers again face tough budget decisions, with a projected minimum $280 million shortfall in the General Fund plus unfunded needs in corrections, Medicaid and other agencies. Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed $541 million in tax increases.

The Poarch Band operates bingo casinos in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery with electronic bingo machines that resemble slot machines. The casinos include a 236-room hotel at Wind Creek Atmore and a 283-room hotel at Wind Creek Wetumpka.

What it does not have is a site in north Alabama that could lure lucrative traffic from neighboring states.

Marsh said a proposal being discussed in the House would give the tribe land in north Alabama to run bingo machines — but not casino games— in exchange for money. The state would have to put land in trust for the tribe since the Creeks do not have tribal land in the north, but it would not require a compact.

Marsh said it was not his proposal, but one being discussed in the House.

"House Republicans' are focused on cutting and consolidating government. As we've said before, we're taking an everything-on-the-table approach to solving the budget shortfall," Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said in a statement issued through a spokeswoman.

Bentley has said gambling would not solve the state's budget woes for 2016 because Marsh's proposed gambling referendum could not be approved in time.

Marsh's endorsement of gambling as a revenue source could be a significant boost to the idea that has previously fallen flat with conservative lawmakers. However, the idea faces an uncertain outlook at the Alabama Statehouse where Republicans hold a lopsided majority.

"I'm not feeling it," Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, said. "There is nobody in that room that ran on the 'I'm going to expand gaming platform,'" Brewbaker said of GOP senators. "I don't think all that many people have shifted. We'll know in the next two or three legislative days when we start getting some votes."

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