It is an annual discussion. Will this year be the year the Alabama Legislature gives voters their God-given right for an up-or-down vote on a lottery?
And every year, those who are hoping for that sort of thing are let down.
“But it polls favorably. It’s a no-brainer. The legislature should do its job.”
Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
It goes back to the middle part of the last century and the Phenix City experience for Alabama. Organized crime ran what gambling there was in Alabama, which primarily existed on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, near Columbus, Ga. and Fort Benning.
It operated illegally and to the chagrin of local residents. After an assassinated Attorney General-elect and a National Guard occupation, then-Gov. Gordon Persons broke up the crime syndicate running gambling in Alabama.
But the damage was done. Phenix City was the “see, I told you so” example for gambling opponents. The well was poisoned for the next 40 years.
In 1998, Don Siegelman was elected on the promise to push an education lottery, which was a national trend at the time. But in 1999, his ill-conceived effort to bring a lottery to Alabama fell short by a vote of the public.
Since then, there had not been an appetite for another lottery vote. The political calculus showed it as too risky, as the state transitioned from one-party Democrat rule to one-party Republican rule.
Traditional social conservatives, who had dominated Alabama Republican Party politics, typically do not support any form of gambling.
Over the last few years, moods changed about gambling, and voters showed a willingness to support an education lottery.
Everyone else around Alabama was doing it, so what the heck? If it were only that easy.
To get a lottery, voters would have to support a constitutional amendment that would repeal the state’s prohibition on gambling. But first, it has to get on the ballot.
Getting on the ballot requires an effort — three-fifths supermajority vote of the Alabama Legislature, and that’s the hard part.
While Republicans have the supermajority, a sizable number of Republicans will never vote for any form of gambling, be it lottery or casino gaming. To get to the three-fifths threshold, pro-lottery Republicans need a sufficient number of Democrats to come along to get a constitutional amendment to the ballot.
Democrats are not easily wooed, however.
Through legally dubious local legislation, Democrat-led areas of Alabama have gambling in the form of pseudo-casino gaming in Macon County and Greene County, and the entire Democratic caucus in the legislature is hellbent on preserving those facilities for the sake of the local economies they serve.
The fear is if a constitutional amendment removes the gambling prohibition on the 1901 Alabama Constitution to pave the way for an education lottery, it could also pave the way for expanded gaming at facilities operating on Poarch Band of Creeks Indian tribal land.
Since Indian gaming is regulated by federal law and not state law, there is a fear among some Democrats it could put Greene County’s Greenetrack and Macon County’s VictoryLand at a competitive disadvantage.
Unless there are protections built into any enabling legislation accompanying a constitutional amendment for those facilities, you will not get the votes needed for a constitutional amendment.
In 2021, an effort led by State Sens. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, and Del Marsh, R-Anniston, came closer than any previous effort. But it was dead on arrival in the House of Representatives.
Despite some gestures from members of the legislature, 2022 probably will not be the year for lottery or gambling either.
Election years are challenging for contentious bills, which include gambling.
As things stand right now, the only political way forward for a lottery is through a comprehensive gaming bill. There is no appetite for that as incumbent legislators seeking reelection would have to answer to their constituents for a piece of legislation that will pick winners and losers.
The magic formula to getting anything will have to include help from Gov. Kay Ivey, who offers the same boilerplate statement every time she is asked about not being a gambler but supporting the public’s right to vote.
Suppose Ivey took charge, brokered a deal, and enabled its passage by the legislature through a special session that only she could call. In that case, voters could get some opportunity to legalize gambling in Alabama.
Ivey and legislators are aware of these circumstances. Unfortunately, they use the public’s lack of understanding of the issue as cover not to come to an immediate agreement that could result in the passage of bills to pave the way for legalized gambling in Alabama.
Assuming Ivey wins reelection later this year, and there is not a lot of turnover in the Alabama Legislature, 2023 and beyond look to be the best shot at settling the issue on the state level.
By then, Ivey will have political capital. There also could be an added incentive in that the state is in financial need. In contrast, they had not been the last few years, given the state economy and the amount of federal money flowing into state coffers because of COVID.
And by then, the taxpayers may also get a better deal than they would now.
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