MONTGOMERY -- Lottery legislation on Wednesday cleared its first hurdle in the Alabama Legislature, a sign of eroding opposition to legalized gambling in the conservative state.
The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved a lottery bill on a voice vote after a brief public hearing. Bill sponsor, Rep. Alan Harper, said people in the state constantly tell him they want to end Alabama's status as one of the few states in the country without a lottery.
"Everywhere I go I hear the question, "When are you going to let us vote?" Harper, R-Northport, said.
Bills by Harper and Sen Jim McClendon, R-Springville, would put the idea of creating a state lottery before state voters in November. The proposal would leave legislators to decide many of the details later, including how the proceeds would be used.
The committee approval comes as lottery legislation gets its first serious debate in the Alabama Legislature in 17 years. State voters in 1999 rejected a lottery proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman. Democrats, in the years since, have introduced lottery legislation without success. Opposition among Republican lawmakers to gambling has dwindled as neighboring states have approved lotteries and state lawmakers regularly struggle to put together budgets without new revenue.
Gambling opponents dominated public hearings in House and Senate committees, citing lottery ticket sales statistics and Bible passages as they urged the state to continue to oppose gambling as a revenue source.
"It's going to be the poor that are buying the tickets. They are the ones that are going to be targeted," Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, told lawmakers.
Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, asked committee members," Do you really think Jesus Christ is in this? Honestly, deep in your heart do you believe Christ is involved in a lottery?"
However, Mac McArthur, the executive director of the Alabama State Employees' Association, said the state needs to find an additional source of revenue, noting how a tax package was largely unsuccessful in the Legislature last year.
A Senate committee held a public hearing, but did not vote on McClendon's bill. Some lawmakers have raised the vagueness of the proposals as a concern.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said he expects lawmakers will want additional details.
"I do agree it's very vague right now. I did suggest to the senator he might want to find a way to tighten that up. Otherwise, I think it might have some difficulty in committee," Marsh, R-Anniston, said.
Harper said he is willing to accept amendments to specify the distribution of the funds.
Other lawmakers, including Marsh, said they would prefer to simultaneously debate casino gambling as a revenue source, along with lotteries.
Rep. Pebblin Warren, who represents a Macon County district where a bingo casino was shuttered after being raided by the state, urged lawmakers to consider allowing casinos in the state.
"If we are going to get out to the people and talk about gaming, it's time we deal with whole gaming issue," Warren said.
Eric Johnston, a gambling opponent and attorney, told the committees that he was concerned that removing the prohibition on lotteries in the Alabama Constitution -- without more specifics on what they would be-- could open the door to casinos. McClendon disputed that and said his intent was only to allow a lottery.