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Fate of Alabama lottery bill uncertain

This Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, file photo shows Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in Montgomery, Ala. Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, to begin a special session focused on the possibility of a state lottery. Bentley says he was “reasonably optimistic” about getting a lottery bill approved.
This Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, file photo shows Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in Montgomery, Ala. Alabama lawmakers return to Montgomery Monday, Aug. 15, 2016, to begin a special session focused on the possibility of a state lottery. Bentley says he was “reasonably optimistic” about getting a lottery bill approved. AP File

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed lottery faces an uncertain future after a legislative mishap will prevent the issue from getting to voters in November.

The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee will consider the bill Wednesday afternoon, but that is too late to meet a deadline to get on the Nov. 8 ballot. Lottery opponents used a procedural vote to block the committee from meeting Tuesday, since the meeting was scheduled at the same time the House was meeting.

“The lottery should have been on the general election. I don’t know if it was intentional or just a real blunder, but either way the House has really screwed it up,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, D-Anniston, said Wednesday.

Bentley proposed a lottery as a way to get more money to the state’s perpetually cash-strapped Medicaid program. The governor is seeking the first statewide vote on a proposed lottery since voters rejected a 1999 lottery proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman.

Bentley on Tuesday urged lawmakers to keep working on the bill, saying a special election could be called if needed.

The delay in the lottery bill could also temporarily delay action on the other key issue of the session: a bill dividing the state’s settlement funds from the 2010 oil spill. Marsh said he wanted to delay a vote on the oil spill bill until the lottery issue was settled.

The lottery was eyed as a long-term funding solution for Medicaid, while the oil spill settlement division could provide funds next year.

“The reality is if the lottery bill fails, then the money for Medicaid that was projected in the future is gone, so then you may have to relook at the BP bill to see if we’ve got to have more money for Medicaid,” Marsh said.

Alabama’s general fund will get $1 billion over the next 18 years in settlement funds from the 2010 oil spill settlement. Under a House bill, the state would take a smaller amount up front — a projected $640 million — by doing a bond issue. About $450 million would be used for debt repayment and $191 million for two road projects in south Alabama, U.S. Highway 98 and Beach Expressway.

Paying debts early would free up $70 million in state funds that could help avoid Medicaid cuts in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The proposal has pitted lawmakers from south Alabama against other senators. Two Republican lawmakers have proposed to use more money for debts and Medicaid, and less for roads, noting coastal counties directly received funds to compensate for oil spill damage.

“This is kind of like the civil war. We have the north and we have the south,” Birmingham Sen. Rodger Smitherman said of the dispute.

Senators began debate on the oil spill bill Wednesday morning.

Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile, said coastal counties received the brunt of the damage, and should receive a larger share of the money. He said south Alabama lawmakers did not want to accept less than $191 million.

“We need the 191. We believe that is a fair compromise,” Hightower said.

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