It seems just like yesterday. Don Siegelman was elected governor, and it looked like an Alabama lottery would be a foregone conclusion.
Siegelman’s only hurdle in establishing a state lottery was actual formal voter approval via referendum. If Siegelman was able to win the governorship, then this would be a no-brainer.
Well, not exactly.
While many of us were awaiting the Y2K crash and rocking out to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” in October 1999, the lottery referendum went down by more than 104,000 votes (8 percent of the overall vote).
That “no” vote had some help. Rival gambling interests outside of Alabama saw Siegelman’s lottery push as a threat to their businesses. Casinos in Mississippi relied heavily on Alabamians making the trip across state lines. If Alabama passed a lottery, that would be the first symbolic breach in the dam. Other gaming might proliferate in Alabama.
The Choctaw Indian Tribe, with the success of their casinos in Mississippi on the line, employed the likes of now disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff to defeat the lottery.
According to his post-imprisonment memoir “Capitol Punishment,” Abramoff looked to his former College Republican National Committee colleague Ralph Reed, the founder of the Christian Coalition, to mobilize the faith community in Alabama to act against the lottery.
Reed put a specific focus on organizing African-American churches against the lottery. As history shows, it paid off. Despite electing Siegelman as governor, who ran on the lottery as a major plank in his platform, it suffered a major defeat.
You could argue the result of that 1999 lottery vote is one of the reasons for all the weird gambling interest sideshows plaguing Alabama politics. That is, these gambling interests view Alabamians as an untapped customer base.
If Alabama had voted for a lottery then, what might have come in the 19 years since? Would there be more casino-style games throughout the state? Who knows, but it wouldn’t be the status quo.
Should a lottery come up for a vote again — and there are rumblings that Gov. Kay Ivey and the Legislature could be willing to revisit the issue — it would likely take an even more Herculean effort to defeat it this time.
The demographics of the state have changed. Notably, there is a larger suburban population. Although it is still a reliably conservative voting bloc, the emphasis suburbanites place on social issues has waned.
Consider this: There are very few dry counties remaining in Alabama. Although the same-sex marriage U.S. Supreme Court ruling sent shockwaves around the country, most people here shrugged it off. Twenty years ago, if a candidate for statewide office had spoken openly in favor of abortion, as Doug Jones did in an interview with Chuck Todd in the early phases of the general election campaign, his opponent’s flaws would not have mattered.
I suspect attitudes about gambling are in line with those other hot-button social issues. The voters aren’t all-in on state-imposed Biblical guidelines. They’ve determined responsibility and self-reliance are more valuable and are virtues with which the government shouldn’t interfere.
That is why a moral argument against a state-run lottery won’t win this time.
People will vote for a lottery because, while they may be opposed to gambling (and anything the flawed state government endeavors), they believe people ought to have the ability to make that choice on their own.
Without a viable moral argument against a lottery, the only other potential opposition that could gain traction is to question the fiscal responsibility of the governing bodies that want to institute the lottery.
The discussion Alabamians and their lawmakers should have isn’t whether or not to have a lottery. It should be what to do with the lottery proceeds once it is in place.
Alabama can learn a lot from its neighbors that already have instituted lotteries. It can overcome the beak-wetting processes of instituting the lottery. Now that the Alabama Education Association (AEA) teachers’ union has a diminished role in Alabama politics, less of the money a lottery would generate can go to frivolous things that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of public schooling (but are instead in the interest of the AEA itself).
The state probably missed its window for pulling in a lot of revenue for the government with a lottery. A lottery is old hat. No one will be coming from other states to play in Alabama’s lottery. Now it’s about keeping proceeds presently going to coffers in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee at home.
The pertinence of the lottery discussion in our politics comes as Alabama’s neighbors to the west in Mississippi are considering a lottery. Given that Mississippi is moving toward a lottery, it seems like only a natural question for candidates in Alabama — and magically, that makes it a campaign issue at the top of the list in an otherwise lackluster cycle.