In a move that seems to indicate a shift towards bi-partisan support for a statewide lottery, Republican representative and chair of the General Fund committee Steve Clouse of Ozark teamed up with his Democratic counterpart Rep. Craig Ford of Gadsden, to co-sponsor a bill that would set up a referendum for a lottery to help fund Medicaid.
As most people are aware, Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed $541 million in tax increases, mainly on auto sales and tobacco, to shore up the General Fund budget next year and make it sustainable for years to come. Needless to say, it hasn’t been well received.
Tax increases are obviously not something Republican lawmakers really want to put their names on. A lottery hasn’t been either, but with a serious budget crisis looming and our own ultra-conservative governor saying cuts just aren’t enough, the lottery could become the lesser of two evils in some lawmakers’ estimations. Something Rev. Joe Godfrey, the former president of the Alabama Baptist Convention and the current director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, an anti-gambling group, warned of in an opinion piece earlier this year.
“Pro-gambling and pro-lottery forces are pushing Alabama once again to legalize gambling. What is different this time is that some conservative Republican legislators are ‘cozying up’ to the idea. One new House Member recently stated in a public forum in his district that, given the choice between raising taxes and voting on a lottery, he would vote on a lottery,” Godfrey wrote.
The Reverend, as many opponents do, finds gambling to be immoral and also something that preys upon and “taxes” the poor.
Rep. Clouse said he would support a referendum in March, the same day as the Alabama presidential primary, because he is just open to considering all revenue sources. (Bravo Rep. Clouse! I like it when I see politicians with guts, not the ones who just hide and try to not to rock the boat at all.)
The last time Alabamians voted on a lottery in 1999 it was handily defeated with 54 percent opposing the creation of a lottery designed to fund pre-k programs, college scholarships and computers for schools. But that was over 15 years ago, and there wasn’t the “greatest financial crisis in the state since the Great Depression” looming, as one lawmaker put it.
The Governor has said he wouldn’t block a vote on the lottery — a vote in which his own polling told him 74 percent of Alabamians were in favor of — and he is interested in a pact with the Poarch Creek Indians, which would expand the types of gambling options they could offer, which could bring millions into state coffers. But he also warned this wouldn’t solve our short-term problems.
And those problems are horrendous and even inhumane.
A couple of weeks ago, Department of Corrections Commissioner Jefferson Dunn said at a hearing on the state budget that if the department cut their budget by just three percent they would likely have to close two corrections facilities and relocate 2,000 inmates, which would take the state’s prison occupancy rate up to over 220 percent from the current 185 percent. This would make an already egregious situation even worse.
The department is already being sued in federal court for providing substandard mental and healthcare to inmates across the state. Another federal suit was filed on behalf of the inmates at a state facility in St. Clair County, after six prisoners were killed by other inmates over the last 2 ½ years. And the U. S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report in 2014 detailing the sexual abuse the women at Tutwiler Prison were enduring from male corrections employees.
This sounds like something from that show “Locked Up Abroad,” which details the horrors of the prisons in Third World countries. But this is happening in our own backyard. And it’s shameful!
And if cuts are made to Alabama’s already beleaguered Medicaid program, access to healthcare, especially in rural areas, will become even more difficult, and the cuts may force more mental health facilities or community-based mental health programs to shut down.
Look, I am all for saving taxpayer money when it’s being misused, but some of the stories from these two departments especially are far beyond a policy debate.
A large part of the opposition to the lottery is on “moral” grounds. But how “moral” is it to let certain segments of our population be raped, killed or slowly die because they don’t have access to adequate healthcare? It’s so bad we face federal intervention in some of these areas.
Is this really the Alabama we want to be?
While I don’t believe a lottery would solve all of our problems either, it would be a good start, if it were set up properly. And Alabamians should get the opportunity to vote on it, at the very least.
Opponents like Godfrey say a lottery unfairly targets the poor, but at least they have a choice in the matter. A woefully underfunded Medicaid program would seem to be a little bit bigger problem for the poor than being tempted to buy some scratch-offs. Especially since we gave them no choice when we refused to accept a federally subsidized expansion of Medicaid in the state.
Aside from tax hikes and budget cuts and park closings, there are various other ideas being tossed around on both sides of the aisle. One is removing earmarks from some funds so they could be used to address more dire needs first.
But ALL of these things need to be put on the table and be carefully considered based on their merits and ability to remedy our severe and most pressing problems, not politics.
None of these remedies are going to be popular. And let’s face it, legislators, you are always going to get those dreaded scary “phone calls from home,” which you all seem to love to throw out as an excuse for inaction. You could be considering a bill promising sunshine and rainbows everyday and someone from your district would call to complain that they would get sunburned and feared rainbows would bring an increased illegal leprechaun population.
Often the vocal minority, who is usually self-serving and/or insane, sucks the very last little bit of spinal cord out of the backs of some of these lawmakers. And that’s our fault as a citizenry because we aren’t paying attention and we aren’t making those same “phone calls from home” that the crazy people are.
Nor do we have the influence a powerful lobbying group does. Some of our lawmakers would vote for a bill to set kittens on fire in every town square in the state, if they were told to do so by these groups. Or at the very least, if they couldn’t vote for the kitty burnings because they were getting “calls from crazy cat ladies from home,” they wouldn’t vote against the kitty burnings, they’d just assign them to some committee to let the bill quietly die there, which I think is almost worse.
It’s just such sad display of cowardice up there. Can anyone just stand up for what they believe in and say it? Why is that so hard?
This is precisely how the state has gotten to the point it is now, and it’s really kind of gross.
But maybe — just maybe — the crisis we are in will actually give some of these cowards the courage (and the political cover) to finally vote their consciences and do something because it’s the right thing to do to make our state better.
Gasp! What a novel idea!