Politics & Government

Alabama lawmakers push lottery bill in upcoming session

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Some Republican lawmakers say it's time Alabama considered a state lottery.

Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville and Rep. Alan Harper, R-Northport, on Tuesday introduced a lottery bill for the upcoming session. The bill, if approved by lawmakers, would put the question before the voters in November, leaving legislators to decide crucial details in 2017, such as where the proceeds will go and how the lottery would be run

"It is a simple straightforward vote of the people that says, "Would you like to have a state lottery, yes or no?" McClendon said.

The Republican legislator said his constituents "constantly" tell him they want to see a lottery in Alabama, especially with the recent mania over the $1.3 billion Powerball jackpot that's luring people across state lines to buy tickets.

"Everywhere I go people are saying, `Yeah we've got our tickets or we are on the way' .... They are driving to surrounding states. They are leaving our money and they are coming back and they cannot understand why Alabama doesn't offer what 44 other states in America offer and that is an opportunity to have their own lottery."

Alabama is one of six states without a lottery.

Alabama voters rejected the idea of a lottery in 1999 when it was proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman to fund college scholarships and prekindergarten programs.

Republican legislators were among the staunchest opponents of Siegelman's lottery bill during the 1999 debate. Republicans now hold majorities in both chambers of the Alabama Legislature and have never embraced legalized gambling as a caucus. However, some Republicans appear to be warming to the idea, particularly after GOP legislators have struggled to prepare a state general fund budget without tax increases.

McClendon said his bill wasn't a reaction to recent state budget troubles but said the lottery would bring in needed revenue.

"A lottery would bring millions of dollars to our state and could fund everything from new schools to repairing roads and bridges," McClendon said.

Delaying the decision on how the money would be spent would also delay that legislative battle for another day

House Democratic leader Craig Ford criticized the GOP proposal, saying it asks voters to approve a "blank check" and trust the decisions that lawmakers would make later.

Ford on Tuesday filed a rival lottery bill that he has pushed for seven years. His would steer the proceeds to college scholarships and education.

"I've talked with people all over the state. They want a lottery, but they don't want it for prisons or Medicaid," said Ford, D-Gadsden. "Almost every single person I've talked to says they'll vote against it if it's not an education lottery."

A question could arise about removing a state constitutional ban on games of chance to allow a lottery: Would that open the door to table games at bingo casinos run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and others?

Gov. Robert Bentley asked the Alabama Supreme Court for an advisory opinion last year, but the justices declined to weigh in without specific language to review

McClendon said he did not believe it would open the door to any other sort of gambling.

"This bill is a lottery bill and nothing else," McClendon said.