The debate over the creation of a state lottery has brought out the worst in Montgomery. Not for the first time in the state’s history, the debate over a governor’s lottery proposal has turned an already contentious political situation into an all-out legislative looney tune.
Several failed bills and cloture votes later, while some progress has been made in the Statehouse effort to stitch together Alabama’s fraying fiscal fabric, it’s mostly been just that: an iron-on patchwork political solution, addressing half an issue here, a bit of an issue there, but never directly and seriously addressing the underlying problems burdening state finances.
When the governor first called the special session to consider the lottery, hopes were high and expectations low on Goat Hill. Gov. Robert Bentley wanted a clean bill allowing only for a statewide vote on a lottery, but he was one of the only vocal supporters of that specific proposal. Other ideas were flying through the Statehouse.
Some lawmakers urged the passage of full-out casino gambling, some urged limited gambling at select locations throughout the state and many very clearly expressed their complete opposition to any gambling — or lottery — at all. The only thing legislators shared was a zealous belief that their own view was the right one.
This clash of ideas came into clear view during the first week of the special session. Multiple lottery bills that included non-lottery gambling were debated for days in the Senate, then defeated. Sen. Jim McClendon, though — who had introduced the legislation — urged persistence in moving on to a “clean bill” like that suggested by the governor.
“Update on allowing you to vote on a lottery,” Sen. McClendon posted on his social media account. “My first bill, Senate Bill 11, was effectively killed today. The fat lady hasn’t begun to sing yet. My second lottery bill, SB3, a much simpler, less complex version, will be before the Senate for debate tomorrow, Friday. It is my commitment to you, the voters, to do everything I can to allow you to make the final decision on having an Alabama lottery. Some lawmakers just don’t trust your judgment. Thanks for all the support you have given me.”
Even after McClendon’s post, those in Montgomery considered senate passage of a lottery bill unlikely. Despite widespread public support for a lottery, most Alabamians want any revenue spent on education, which is not where it’s currently needed most.
Alabama’s separate budgets — one for the general fund and one for education — presented a problem for lawmakers; the general fund, which the public rarely lobbies to support, is in dire need of revenue sources, while the education trust fund — protected by public and trade association interests — is ballooning in revenue growth.
“[The public] want some of the funding, some of the revenue from a lottery to go to education,” Sen. Bill Holtzclaw said on the issue. “That is their preference.”
The solution — or so lawmakers hope — may be to split any lottery revenue, giving 90 percent to the general fund and 10 percent to education, a compromise that would satisfy public demands as well as realistic needs.
Eventually, when the “clean” lottery bill came up for debate in the Senate, lawmakers got to vote on just that. After hours of back and forth on the floor, senators passed amendments including a 90 percent to 10 percent split on lottery revenue as well as an earmark providing the first $100 million in revenue be spent on Medicaid.
Both those amendments passed, and the “clean” bill — providing for a statewide vote on a lottery alone — passed the Senate by just the three-fifths majority necessary to pass the proposed constitutional amendment, without a vote to spare. That bill moves forward for debate in the House of Representatives this week.
While the Senate was debating the lottery proposal, though, the House put its own agenda into play. House members debated — and eventually passed by a vote of 91 to 10 — legislation allocating spending of this year’s portion of the state’s BP oil spill settlement.
That bill, which moves forward this week in the Senate, opts to take a small settlement from BP up front for about about $640 million, $450 million of which would go to debt repayment, and $191 million of which would go to road projects throughout the state. That political patchwork — particularly part of the debt repayment — would provide up to $70 million this year for Medicaid, which has an $85 million shortfall this year.
So it’s possible Alabama will get a lottery in the near future. If legislation passes this week, the issue will be on the November ballot. Otherwise, Gov. Bentley has said he is willing to call another special session to debate the issue. In that case, the state would vote for any proposal after the November election — a delay, for sure, but definitely no longer than the nearly two decades since the last statewide vote on the issue.
The problem with any lottery proposal, however, and the problem with the way lawmakers approached the special session in Montgomery, is reality: Alabama has serious fiscal problems it needs to address. No lottery is going to fix that; that’s a fact. The more important truth, though, is that not addressing the structural, long-term problems Alabama faces, not facing those problems head-on, is the real, and long-term, gamble.