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  • Alabama Senate approves bills for lottery, casinos

    By Mike Cason | mcason@al.com
    The Alabama Senate has approved legislation to allow voters to decide whether to have a lottery and casinos.

    The main bill, a constitutional amendment by Sen. Jim McClendon, a Republican from Springville, passed by a vote of 23-9.

    Tonight’s votes came five weeks after the Senate rejected a similar plan. The legislation goes to the House.

    If it passes the House and legislators give final approval, it would go on the ballot for the November 2022 general election.

    McClendon’s original bill proposed a constitutional amendment to allow voters to decide whether to have a lottery but did not include casinos. But the Senate tonight adopted a substitute bill by McClendon that added six new casinos to the plan.

    McClendon said he did not have enough support to pass the bill if it only included the lottery.

    Four of the casinos would be at the state’s greyhound tracks in Birmingham, Mobile, Greene County, and Macon County. One would be in Houston County, at the Crossing at Big Creek bingo hall. The sixth would be in either DeKalb or Jackson County in northeast Alabama.

    The bill would create an Alabama Gaming Commission that would issue licenses for the casinos through a competitive bidding process. But the current operators in Birmingham, Mobile, Greene County, Macon County, and Houston County would have the right to make a final bid exceeding the highest bidder.

    For the casino in DeKalb or Jackson County, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians would have the right to make the final bid.

    The bill would require the governor to negotiate a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. That could allow the Poarch Creeks to offer the full range of casino games at their resorts in Atmore, Montgomery, and Wetumpka, which now offer only electronic bingo.

    The bill would also authorize sports betting.

    The plan has similarities to one proposed earlier by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. That bill fell two votes shy of the 21 votes needed in the 34-member Senate on March 9.

    Tonight, the Senate passed three bills by Marsh that would spell out some of the details about how the lottery and casinos would operate if the constitutional amendment passes.

    The Senate then turned to the constitutional amendment, the key bill in the package.

    Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, proposed an amendment to add a casino in Lowndes County. The Senate rejected the amendment by a vote of 18-11.

    Soon after that, the Senate passed McClendon’s proposed constitutional amendment, sending it to the House.

    McClendon is optimistic about the legislation’s chances in the House. He said House members have been involved in meetings with senators and Gov. Kay Ivey and her staff over the last week or so.

    “They should be ready in the House to deal with this,” McClendon said. “I know they have been tracking it. They’ve been in constant contact with me, wanting to know the status.”

    Forty-five states have lotteries, including the four that border Alabama. McClendon had said his main goal was to get a lottery proposal on the ballot for voters. But he said there were not enough votes to get a lottery-only bill through the Senate.

    “I have confidence that the House is going to take this opportunity,” McClendon said. “We’ve been waiting for it for a long time. We’ve been haunted by this issue of gambling in Alabama. Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been an issue. Well, it’s time we got it resolved. And I think the Senate has certainly made a major first step in doing so.”

    Marsh was also optimistic about the legislation’s chances in the House.

    “There have been great meetings with the House members and the governor’s staff, the governor,” Marsh said. “I really believe everybody sees the light in a comprehensive plan. And I believe that the leadership of the House will take this piece of legislation and move it forward and make sure the members understand it.

    “Yeah, it’ll have changes. The House will put its imprint on it. And we’ll probably see it up here (in the Senate) again. But I think everybody sees the need and the timing to get this done in this session.”

    Voters would have the final say on whether to allow an expansion of gambling in the state.

    Net revenue from the lottery would be used for college scholarships based on merit, need, and workforce demands. Net revenue from the casinos and sports betting would support expanding access to high-speed internet, rural health care, mental health care, and other programs.

    Marsh said the legislation was an important step for two main reasons.

    “One, giving people the right to vote, which they have wanted for a long time,” he said. “And then taking those dollars and putting them into the programs that people want to see in the state of Alabama. It’s just a really good day, and we’re talking significant dollars, probably in the neighborhood of seven hundred million dollars when these are fully implemented.”

    A study commission appointed by Gov. Ivey issued a report in December saying the state could benefit from uniform regulation of gambling and could gain net revenue of up to about $700 million a year from a lottery, casinos, and sports betting. Ivey supports sending a comprehensive gambling proposal to voters.

    “Governor Ivey remains firmly convinced there is a way where, if done right, the people of Alabama can eventually have the final say on a comprehensive gambling package that will be transparent and transformative,” Ivey Press Secretary Gina Maiola said in an email tonight. “That remains her goal, and she intends to continue to be fully engaged in the legislative process.”

    Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said the legislation that passed tonight was the result of weeks of negotiations and work.

    “It’s our job to look at issues deep and wide,” Reed said. “And I think what we saw was an enormous amount of participation. But it wasn’t just today. This has been a process that’s been going on even before the session started. We’ve had a lot of involvement, a lot of engagement.”

    Reed said he though a key to approval of the constitutional amendment was that the Senate first passed the three enabling bills, the ones that spell out specifics about how the lottery and casinos would operate, how the funds will be used, and other details.


  • Biden says pause on J&J shots shows government is putting safety 1st

    WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign hit a snag Tuesday when federal regulators recommended a “pause” in administering Johnson & Johnson shots. But the White House portrayed the action as an important validation of his measured approach throughout the rollout.

    Biden declared that even with a temporary loss of J&J ‘s one-shot vaccine, there is a huge supply of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, enough that “is basically 100% unquestionable, for every single solitary American.”

    This could result in a potential blow to public confidence in vaccines as many Americans are hesitant to get the shots that public health experts say are necessary for the nation to emerge from the pandemic. President Biden disagrees.

    The pause actually should have the opposite effect, boosting confidence that the government is putting safety first, Biden and top health officials said at a White House briefing. The advisory by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — citing a need to investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots — was “testimony to how seriously we take safety,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

    In the opening months of his presidency, Biden has put top priority on a robust response to the virus that has killed 563,000 Americans, with a vaccine campaign in which nearly 40% of adults have received at least one shot.

    His actions have received generally strong reviews, and hesitancy toward taking the vaccine has gradually declined as inoculations have increased. With three vaccines in use in the U.S. and plenty of supply in the pipeline, Biden actually has received some criticism for not sharing more vaccines with other nations. The president said Tuesday’s action proved the wisdom of his approach.

    “My message to the American people on the vaccine is, I told you all,” Biden told reporters after the announcement, adding that he “made sure we have 600 million doses” just from Pfizer and Moderna in the pipeline.

    The Johnson & Johnson pause, which regulators say they hope to resolve within days, comes on the heels of production issues at the Baltimore plant that produces the J&J vaccine.

    The White House, which got only about 12 hours’ notice that some sort of announcement was coming and did not have any advance warning about the substance of the FDA and CDC’s action, moved swiftly to minimize concerns about its impact. Aides recognized that they had to portray the decision as ensuring the “gold standard” of safety, to avoid feeding into vaccine hesitancy.

    “I think it’s a very strong argument for safety actually,” Fauci said.

    White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients added that the pause by the agencies “should reassure the American public that they will be very diligent and conservative about how they approach the vaccines.”

    They argued the pause proved the prudence of Biden’s cautious approach to promises around vaccine supply and delivery, as well as his administration’s reluctance to make commitments to share excess vaccine with the world because of concerns about potential setbacks such as this.

    “They’re clearly trying to reassure people there will be supply, and it will be safe,” said former White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “You don’t want this to have happened, but in terms of what are your tools when it does, they used their best ones — the president, the most senior person who has credibility and the top experts — to do it.”

    Due to supply issues, the J&J shot reflects just a small share of doses being administered, though it had been one of the most promising vaccines given its ease of administration and distribution. Zients said the U.S. still expects to take delivery of enough doses of the other two approved vaccines for every adult American to get their shots by the end of May. Moderna and Pfizer this week are delivering 28 million doses to the federal government — enough to exceed even the current 3 million shot-per-day pace.

    Zients acknowledged that some states may have been caught off guard by Tuesday’s announcement but said that reflected the speed with which officials moved to address the safety concerns. He added it was proof of Biden’s commitment to “follow the science” in responding to the pandemic.

    “We want the science agencies to lead with science,” Zients said, saying no one at the White House was involved in the decision to call for the pause. “There’s no reason for us to be involved in any of the scientific decisions, we bring nothing to the table.”

    The agencies said Tuesday they were investigating unusual clots that occurred in six women, of the more than 6.8 million adults who’ve received the shot. One of the patients died and another remains hospitalized in serious condition.

    Officials said the delay had as much to do with educating physicians about the unique way the clots have to be treated as their desire to study the exceedingly rare side effect. The usual treatment, with the blood thinner heparin, could lead to dangerous patient outcomes, they said.

    Fauci, speaking at the White House, advised those who had recently gotten J&J shots not to “get an anxiety reaction, because remember it’s less than one in a million.” He added, “However, having said that, pay attention” to potential symptoms of the clot including severe headaches, abdominal or leg pain, and shortness of breath.

    Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, an infectious disease physician at the John Cochran VA Medical Center and St. Louis Board of Health, said the J&J pause might affect overall vaccine confidence but the transparency was critical to boosting confidence in minority communities that have some of the lowest uptake of the shots.

    “Today was such a sign of strength and of leadership and of improved direction toward rebuilding trust in these communities,” she said of the Biden administration’s forthrightness about the issue. “They came to us as soon as this information became available knowing what was at stake.”

    “They’re trusting the American public, and this gives these communities a reason to trust them,” she said.


  • Minnesota police arrest more than 60 for rioting, other offenses

    Minnesota police made more than 60 arrests for rioting and other offenses during protests for Daunte Wright on Tuesday night in Brooklyn Center, Minn. 

    Officers made "many arrests for riot and other criminal behaviors," Minnesota State Patrol Colonel Matt Langer said in a news conference early Wednesday morning. "The behaviors that we continue to see are unacceptable and we are not going to tolerate them ...It is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated if you choose to do criminal activity and destroy property and throw objects and make it unsafe for people to come and exercise their First Amendment rights." 

    Langer said he didn't have the exact numbers of how many had been arrested. 

    Some of the rioters had thrown projectiles, including bricks and bottles, at officers, Booker Hodges, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department for Public Safety, said. 

    Fox News reporter Mike Tobin said the makeup of protesters changed vastly on Tuesday night - and some identified as Antifa. 

    "On Sunday night it was all about the locals that were here and they were genuine and they were angry. As it goes on, you get more people coming in from out of town," he told Laura Ingraham. "I had a lot of people - several people I spoke with tonight – who identified themselves as Antifa and angrily so."

    Police used flash-bang grenades and riot gas as some protesters shook the fence that was erected around the police station and at least one neighbor who lived in a nearby apartment complained the riot gas was seeping into her home, according to the Star Tribune. 

    "Unfortunately again, some citizens decided to come out and throw these bricks and these other items at law enforcement and this type of behavior is not acceptable and we're just, quite frankly, not going to tolerate it," Hodges said. 

    The protesters, who took to the streets for the third straight night Tuesday, were calling for an independent investigation in Wright's shooting. 

    Wright was allegedly shot and killed by a 26-year police veteran during a traffic stop Sunday. 

    Police in Brooklyn Center declared an unlawful assembly Tuesday as the curfew went into effect, telling protesters they would be arrested if they remained. 

    No looting or burglaries related to the protests were reported Tuesday, according to Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Amelia Huffman, the Tribune reported. 

    Langer said there were many peaceful protests during the day but once night fell the situation "devolved." 

    "As the evening unfolded, the event devolved and became more contentious, tension rose and once again we saw groups choose to actively begin trying to compromise the fence that is securing the police department, began throwing objects…started with the fireworks, started with lasers being pointed and started with activities that lead toward a riot."

    The protest follows the resignation of Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tom Gannon and Kim Potter, the officer who police said fired the shot that killed Wright, Mayor Mike Elliott announced Tuesday.  

    "We want an independent body to investigate police killings and not the [Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension]," attorney and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said, according to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

    She said she has spoken to  Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz about proposing several bills aimed at police accountably: "Ending qualified immunity is an example … to stop killing people on the taxpayer's dollars," she said.

    The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension identified Potter late Monday as the officer seen in released body-camera footage firing a single round at Wright. Gannon said he made the call to release the footage and said he believed the female officer intended to reach for her Taser, but instead grabbed her handgun, categorizing the incident as an "accidental discharge."

    Potter reportedly left her home Tuesday after her address was allegedly leaked on social media, The Independent reported. 

    Metal fencing was erected in front of the house and police have been posted there, according to the Wall Street Journal. Neighbors told the Journal they're on edge. 

    "We’re stressed, we’re nervous. I’ve been told some of the neighbors have left," the neighbor, who said she doesn't know Potter, told the newspaper. "It was a horrible situation. We also feel bad for Mr. Wright’s family."

    On Tuesday evening, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in front of an FBI building in Brooklyn Center, Minn, according to images posted online. Some stood atop the FBI sign holding a banner that read: "Justice for Daunte Wright."

    Tuesday's gathering marks the third consecutive night protesters have taken to the streets following the police-involved death of Wright.

    It comes after Minnesota authorities arrested about 40 people after rioters and police clashed for a second night in Brooklyn Center, authorities said in a news conference early Tuesday.

    Hundreds gathered outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department Monday and defied curfew. They demanded justice for Wright. 

    Authorities fired tear gas, and flash-bang grenades into the crowd after warning them that they were in violation of curfew. Some rioters retaliated by throwing smoke canisters back toward law enforcement, while others launched fireworks at the police lines, according to reports.

    Police shot and killed Wright during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb on Sunday. The bodycam footage showed three police officers gathered near a stopped car that was pulled over an expired registration. Police attempted to arrest Wright for an outstanding warrant, leading to a struggle, followed by the fatal shooting.

    Protests have sometimes turned destructive and violent with tensions already high amid the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former officer accused in the alleged murder of George Floyd.

    "Because you all showed up, Kim Potter doesn't have a job anymore," activist Toussaint Morrison said, according to the newspaper. "Kim Potter was a police officer longer than Daunte was alive. … You can't tell me that was an accident."


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