Alabamians will not be voting on a proposed lottery come November, but that’s about the only thing lawmakers could agree on when they debated the issue at length last week in Montgomery.
Legislators were able to pass a lottery proposal through both the House and Senate — with few votes to spare — but disagreements over details in the plan killed the bill in the end when the Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject House amendments.
Gov. Robert Bentley called lawmakers into the current special session to consider a lottery as well as BP settlement questions in an effort to pay down the state’s debt and fill an $85 million shortfall in Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income Alabamians, mostly children.
Despite its eventual failure, this session’s lottery proposal was able to garner more support than many had imagined. Many thought the bill, which originated in the Senate, would be dead on arrival, but after a bipartisan coalition of senators voted to cut off opposition debate, the bill passed with not a single vote to spare.
That move — a bipartisan coalition cutting off mostly Republican opposition to the bill — gained the ire of one Republican senator, Paul Bussman, in particular. After the lottery’s passage in the Senate, Bussman and another senator resigned from the Senate GOP caucus, citing a break in an agreement that Republican leadership in the upper chamber would not cut off fellow GOP senators opposing bills on the floor.
“As of Monday,” Bussman said in a statement, “I will no longer affiliate with the Senate majority caucus. In order for the Alabama Senate to operate fairly, we have a set of rules by which all members must abide. In both the Republican and Democrat caucuses, there are also rules that apply. This organized process is crucial to a fair and transparent government. It is when these rules are not followed that the breakdown of the system occurs. The process broke down last week when these rules were violated.”
After that Senate spectacle, the bill moved to the House, where again it was nearly dead on arrival. Using a seldom-cited procedural rule, a few vocal lottery opponents in the House prevented a committee from considering the legislation. This delayed the bill by a day.
Afterward, the House began debate on the lottery and didn’t stop for hours. Members voted to cut off debate nearly half a dozen times. When the bill finally came up for a vote, it failed. Two-thirds of the House, though, then voted to reconsider the bill. Amendments were made. When it came up for a second vote, it passed with only two votes to spare.
The only thing preventing the lottery from being on the ballot in November was the Senate’s approval of the House version of the bill. It wouldn’t come.
When the Senate met the next day, it had relatively minimal debate before overwhelmingly rejecting the House’s changes to the bill, which many said were the result of “wheeling and dealing” behind the scenes. The House’s amendments would have provided funding for rural firefighters and contained a looser definition of “lottery,” which may have provided for other types of gaming, according to some of the legislation’s opponents.
Lagniappe spoke to Rep. Steve McMillan, a Baldwin County Republican, about his thoughts on the lottery debate. McMillan said he opposed a lottery because he thought the plan lacked serious detail.
“The Senate sponsor is alleged to have said that letting voters know detail prior to vote on constitutional amendment is what killed Gov. [Don] Siegelman’s proposed [lottery],” McMillan said.
When contacted about that claim by Lagniappe, the Senate sponsor, Jim McClendon, denied he’d said it.
After the bill died, House minority leader Craig Ford said it was a bad result for Alabamians.
“After years of fighting for a lottery and finally getting it through the Legislature last night, the Senate killed it today and denied the people of Alabama the right to vote. It’s a shame that democracy has lost to attitudes, personalities and egos from the Senate body.”
McMillan responded to the “right to vote” sentiment.
“I have tried to come up with a response to ‘let people vote.’ Alabamians do deserve to vote but on at least a minimally decent amendment so that voters actually know what they are voting on. At least Siegelman’s proposal had companion enabling legislation with a proposed constitutional amendment.”
McMillan also pointed out lottery revenue would not have filled the immediate gap in Medicaid funding.
“Even if a lottery were to pass, it could take up to 12 months to receive funding for Medicaid and now, with questions pertaining to the time frame for a vote on the constitutional amendment, could easily take much longer.”
The biggest concern for McMillan, though, was the vagueness of the legislation.
“There was no good definition of ‘lottery,’ leaving an opportunity for Class III gaming. It took several votes to finally adopt a restrictive amendment. Some proponents were trying to open the door for Class III facilities. Proponents rejected four amendments to allow the legislative review of any compact between Indians and governor. A proposed amendment to nominally fund additional counseling and child abuse [prevention programs] failed.”
As for lottery supporters in the Legislature, they said they felt their effort had been for naught after the Senate failed to approve the House amendments.
“I am so disappointed that the Senate failed to act on the lottery,” Rep. Pat Todd said of the lottery bill’s demise. “The House was in session from 10 a.m. to midnight dealing with the lottery and those that wanted to kill it. We adjourned at 11:58 p.m. and went back in session at 12:01 a.m. to continue business. The House worked hard to reach a compromise. I voted YES for the final bill, now I feel all that work was for nothing … This special session was a bust. So far nothing to help Medicaid. Sad.”
While the lottery is indeed dead, a bill concerning the state’s BP settlement payments will still be up for consideration when the Legislature’s special session resumes Sept. 6.