Victoryland Casino in Macon County laid off several hundred employees when it shut down electronic bingo games following a court order this month, Dr. Lewis Benefield, a Montgomery vet who is the president of the casino.
Benefield said the casino hopes to replace the lost business with new machines that allow players to bet on historic horse races. The casino will continue to offer wagering on horse racing and greyhound racing simulcasts taking place in other states and countries. Birmingham Race Course, of which Benefield is also President, has offered betting on historic horse races as well as simulcasts for a number of years.
Regarding electronic bingo, Benefield said Victoryland’s longstanding dispute with state officials over the legality of these games has ended, at least for now. For more than a decade, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that the games are illegal slot machines and not bingo. Victoryland’s bingo operations have been closed and reopened more than once following enforcement efforts by the attorney general’s office.
“I’m not going to do what maybe some people have done in the past and say, ‘Hey, fuck it. We’ll still be offering it.” I’m not going to be offering electronic bingo,” Benefield said. “I’m doing this entirely within the law and what the law allows me to do.”
The Alabama constitution prohibits lotteries and most forms of gambling. Lawmakers and voters have approved limited exceptions.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the legislature passed legislation allowing pari-mutuel wagering on horse and dog races, broadcast 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 intention 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 function more like slot machines, are illegal gambling devices.
The most recent decision came on September 30, a decision that resulted in electronic bingo being suspended at White Hall Entertainment and Southern Star casinos in Lowndes County, as well as Victoryland.
“We passed a constitutional amendment in 2003,” said Benefield, son-in-law of Victoryland founder Milton McGregor, who died in 2018. “It was accepted by 76 percent of the people of Macon County. We all had intentions and everyone knew we wanted to do what Native Americans did, which was electronic bingo.”
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians offers electronic bingo at their casinos in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka. Former Attorney General Luther Strange tried to end those games about 10 years ago, but federal courts ruled that 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 regulator similar to what lawmakers have been proposing for the past two years, bills that have died. Voters would have the final say if lawmakers approved the plan. It’s unclear how much support this will have during the legislative session beginning March 7, though the Alabama Senate passed a similar plan two years ago and Gov. Kay Ivey has expressed support for giving voters the option to approve a comprehensive gambling law.
“My goal is that we’re going to try to get something passed in the legislature that will help Alabama,” Benefield said. “What will be on the four circuits is to have full casino play. I think that’s the only way we can compete with other countries. I think that’s the only way the four racetracks can become a destination like they used to be and achieve a lot of economic development. Keep Alabamaans from crossing state lines and let people from other states come to us. And be able to benefit from fair tax revenue and provide that tax money to the state.”
Based on recent history gambling suggestions in Alabama 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 commissioned by Ivey, which released a report in December 2020. 45 states now have lotteries, including the four that border Alabama.
Opposition to lottery and gambling tickets occurs in several main areas. Some oppose gambling for moral reasons or because they say a lottery would harm low-income families who would buy a large proportion of the tickets. Legislators in counties with local bingo changes have sought protection for the revenues and jobs these games generate. Another point of contention is the legislation, which designates the four Greyhound tracks as casino sites rather than more open competition for those sites.
Benefield reiterated a point made by the governor’s study group, saying that consistent regulation of gambling is important and noting the proliferation of electronic bingo in Jefferson County.
“By my count, there are 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 would offer them at 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 gambling regulation could generate $510 to $710 million a year in government revenue and create 19,000 jobs.
Benefield said he hopes the historic horse racing machines will be popular enough to attract players to replace Victoryland’s electronic bingo business. The casino, about 20 miles from Montgomery, competes with the Poarch Creeks electronic bingo casinos in Montgomery and Wetumpka.
“Both and Victoryland source the same customers,” Benefield said. “So I don’t know how successful the historic horse races will be versus the bingo games that everyone in the Montgomery area is used to.”
He hopes business will pick up enough to rehire some of those who have lost their jobs.
“If I can get back to that, I’m definitely going to seek her out and get her because we’ve had some of the best employees in the state,” Benefield said.