As lawmakers return to Montgomery this week, they’ll have a host of issues to tackle — some new and others that have been debated for years.
The legislative session officially started Feb. 2, but prefiled bills have been proposed for the past few months. One that has created a lot of buzz is a referendum to gauge Alabama residents’ support of a constitutional amendment establishing a state lottery, which if approved, would be the first referendum on the issue in 17 years.
State Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) and Rep. Alan Harper (R-Northport) are sponsoring identical legislation to establish a referendum vote asking voters a simple question about a state lottery: “Yes or no?”
“My motivation for coming forward with this bill was my constituents, who have repeatedly asked, ‘Why don’t we have the lottery in Alabama? Why do I have to drive to Florida and Georgia to buy a ticket?’” McClendon told Lagniappe.
At a mere 31 words, McClendon says his bill is “simple.” Opponents say it’s too simple, as its only effect would be establishing a vote changing Alabama’s constitution from expressly prohibiting a lottery.
McClendon has previously said this type of statewide lottery could generate $300 million a year, but added he intentionally avoided designating how the proceeds could be spent and which agency would be responsible for managing them.
“My hope is it would get on the 2016 presidential ballot in November, which is when most people tend to turn out for elections,” he added. “If people approve it, it will be up to the Legislature, probably in the 2017 session, to work out the details.”
Alabama is no stranger to the lottery debate, but since a similar referendum was voted down in 1999, budget problems have gotten worse while support for a lottery has grown. In fact, a recent poll conducted by the House and Senate Republican Caucuses found 62 percent of likely primary voters would support a state lottery.
Still, a constitutional amendment requires the approval of two-thirds of both chambers to pass, and at least for now, it appears many in the Mobile-Baldwin County delegation aren’t looking to support the type of “blank check” lottery McClendon has proposed.
“I don’t like lotteries because it’s a tax on fools, but the reality is, a lot of people want to play, and it may be the only way to raise some money,” State Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Daphne) said. “If somebody would propose a tightly constructed multistate lottery, maybe that would get enough votes to get on the ballot, but this is too open-ended.”
Democrats have indeed made a state lottery one of their legislative priorities. The agenda released by the House Democratic Caucus on Jan. 31 identifies a clear purpose for a lottery — scholarships to Alabama’s two- and four-year colleges.
Some in the GOP have categorized this proposal as “another giveaway program,” and many have said they would only support a lottery putting the proceeds directly into the general fund.
Locally, Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-Mobile) said she supports the lottery, but still hasn’t seen enough details.
“I’m certainly an education proponent. I want to make sure it’s funded, and we’re not funding it adequately now, but I also understand we’ve got to do something to shore up our general fund,” Drummond said. “I will say this: for me, in both pieces of legislation I’ve seen, I would want to see some enabling legislation telling me how that money is going to be spent.”
In addition to the lottery and talks about a pay raise for teachers — proposals the two parties view very differently — the other headline issue this session is likely to once again be the state’s beleaguered budget.
In 2015, it took two special sessions before lawmakers finally passed a $1.7 billion budget on Sept. 17 after adding $166 million in tax increases and green-lighting an $80 million transfer from the education budget.
At the time, Gov. Robert Bentley was pushing a tax package widely criticized by residents and lawmakers. This year, he’s shown support for an effort to raise the state’s gas tax from 16 cents per gallon to 28 cents.
Combined with the 18-cent federal gas tax, the total taxes assessed on a single gallon of gasoline is 34 cents. If the state manages to pass its first increase since 1992, that amount would increase to 46 cents per gallon.
While Bentley has already shown his support, a hike in gas taxes did not receive the same welcome from local legislators — many of whom still feel robbed by the governor’s decision to keep a $1 billion settlement from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the state’s coffers.
“The Mobile-Baldwin delegation is already not happy with the governor for taking our BP money away from us, and yet they want us to give them the $386 million in gas tax revenue without assurance that any of it is going to come back to us,” Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) said. “We don’t see road projects to completion. We’ll get one shovel ready, then it changed for political reasons.”
Pringle said he’d like to see the state move toward a stand-alone highway commission instead of a single highway director under the Alabama Department of Transportation — a change he believes would allow for better long-term planning and a set list of prioritized road projects.
Despite acknowledging the need for highway funding, Pringle said he doubted an increase could get legislative traction in year when voters have just seen a reprieve from higher gas prices, especially when there’s no guarantee prices will remain low.
He’s joined in opposition by Democrats and Republicans alike, but others still remain on the fence.
“If you talk to the business community, particularly in Mobile, our infrastructure is crumbling. We need the money, but I currently have heard from constituents who say we’ve just gotten a reprieve,” Drummond said. “We need to meet this challenge for a number of reasons, but there are a lot of concerns over how that money will be distributed and how much is going to go to those priority projects.”
OTHER NOTABLE BILLS
Unnamed HB2: (Rep. James Hanes)
Requiring a wireless communications service provider to give location information to law enforcement agencies in certain situations.
Monuments, Alabama Heritage Protection Act: (Rep. Paul Beckman)
Prohibiting the removal, alteration or other disturbance of any statue or monument located on public property.
Fetal Heartbeat Act: (Sen. Gerald H. Allen)
Prohibits physicians from performing an abortion without first determining fetal heartbeat. Would make failing to do so, or performing an abortion when a heartbeat is detected, a Class C felony.
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