Last week, the state of Mississippi began offering Powerball and Mega Millions lottery tickets. With that, now every state adjacent to Alabama — Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi — offers lottery tickets with proceeds going to some program designated to benefit its citizens.
Alabama would have been there two decades ago. However, then-Gov. Don Siegelman did not foresee the intensity of the opposition from an unholy alliance of out-of-state gambling interests and the so-called religious right.
In October 1999, the lottery in Alabama was defeated in a vote of the people by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin.
Pro-lottery forces were never able to recover from that loss. Although the subject comes up on a nearly annual basis when the legislature meets in Montgomery, efforts die on the vine, trying to make their way through the two chambers.
Often it is procedural, as proposals have failed to meet the three-fifths vote required to make it through to legislature and onto the ballot for a constitutional amendment. But the reasons have varied over the years.
Gambling opposition led by moral forces has always been a component. Over the years, however, that opposition has softened.
In 2020, you cannot blame the Bible-thumpin’, snake-charmin’ holy rollers. It is much more complicated than that.
Native American gaming and local, county-level bingo “casinos,” two seemingly unrelated interests, now play a role in the lottery debate.
Since the mid-1970s, certain places in Alabama have allowed some form of gaming. It began in Greene County in western Alabama near the Mississippi-Alabama line. Greenetrack, a facility off of Interstate Highways 20 and 59, was a prime source of revenue for a county that would otherwise have been impoverished like its Black Belt neighbors.
With the proliferation of gambling in nearby states and elsewhere in Alabama, it is not the draw it once was. However, it still continues to operate.
Under federal law, Native American tribes are allowed to offer any form of gaming on tribal land that is offered within the borders of the state of those tribal lands.
For that reason, under federal law, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians offers gambling in Wetumpka, Atmore and Montgomery.
This uneasy coexistence has been in place for quite some time now.
However, what if Alabama instituted a lottery?
Suddenly, the gaming options offered within the state go from games of skill to games of chance. If games of chance are allowed within the state’s boundaries, the Poarch Creeks could, in theory, expand their gaming as well, if approved by the Department of the Interior.
Keep in mind, as the Poarch Creeks have amassed wealth from the gambling interests, their clout in Montgomery has grown. The dog track “casinos” in Greene, Macon, Lowndes and Jefferson counties made legal by constitutional amendments are competitors of the Poarch Creeks.
For that reason, legislators from those counties have been skeptical of any lottery proposals and have attempted to institute safeguards for their local interests.
That’s why the lottery has failed in Alabama time after time after time.
The reason there is no lottery in Alabama is much more complicated than blaming the religious right for its silly opposition based on Biblical principles.
But it makes a convenient scapegoat.
Hope springs eternal. A new session of the Alabama legislature is upon us. Will a lottery happen this year?
State Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, the chairman of the House of Representatives’ General Fund Committee, is spearheading the effort this time. His hope is to keep the issue isolated from the other gambling issues in Alabama.
That is easier said than done.
Clouse is right about one thing. During a series of media appearances around the state, he warned the clock was ticking as the next election cycle approaches. Lawmakers are traditionally less willing to tackle significant issues like gambling the closer it gets to their re-election.
Isolating the lottery from any other gambling will be difficult.
Behind the scenes, there is an effort underway by the Poarch Creeks. The airwaves have been inundated with a “billion-dollar” proposal from the Native American tribe. It would give the tribe exclusivity, which is a dealbreaker for many.
Consider that an opening offer from the tribe. The Poarch Creeks made a big splash with a bold initial proposal, and everything from this point on is negotiable.
Unfortunately, for those of you who just want to play the Mega Millions or Powerball without having to drive to Mississippi or Florida, it will likely take an effort of this magnitude involving every aspect of gambling in Alabama to get to that point.
There are rumblings of one potential scenario. The Poarch Creeks could make concessions to the existing local, county-level gaming in Alabama. It might be monetary, or it might be to aid in paving the way to legitimacy away from the constant legal threat of state law enforcement.
In return, the governor could negotiate a compact with the tribe and, for a fee and other concessions, allow full Las Vegas-style gaming at existing facilities, and perhaps new ones in Birmingham and/or northeastern Alabama near the Tennessee state line, as have been proposed by the Poarch Creeks.
If no other reason, there is one reason to be optimistic: The uneasy coexistence is holding. For now, each side is not at war with the other.
However, if it does not happen this year, then the next window might not come until February 2023.
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