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Lottery bill stumbles in House, fate uncertain

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A proposal for a statewide lottery was in jeopardy in the Alabama House of Representatives Tuesday, as advocates tried to overcome objections from opponents during floor debate.

At one point, the bill appeared dead after a procedural vote failed, but supporters were trying to revive it as the evening wore on.

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who is carrying the bill in the House, said Tuesday evening he thought he had enough votes to at least get the bill back on the floor, but final passage was another question.

“The question is, as we move forward with the different amendments, is if we have enough votes to get to 63.  I just don’t know if we have that yet so far,” Clouse said.

Sixty three votes, or three fifths of the elected membership of the House, are needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

Clouse later confirmed the bill would not come back up Tuesday night, but could at another point in the future.

Objections to a lottery as a form of government funding, disagreements about how revenue would be spent, and the lack of legal protections for existing dog track casinos were the main points of opposition to the bill.

As passed by the Senate two weeks ago, the lottery proposal dedicated 100 percent of the revenue toward state debt and the General Fund, which supports non-Education agencies and departments. A House committee last week amended the proposal to send 25 percent of the revenue the state education budget.

Several House members said 25 percent for education wasn’t enough.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said she is in favor of letting people vote on a lottery proposal, but would vote against the bill unless she could amend it so that 50 percent of revenues go toward education scholarships and workforce development training.

“I’m not in favor of a lottery that allows that much (revenue) to go to prisons and Medicaid when we have a need in our state for half of million more people with industry-recognized certifications or degrees to reach our attainment goals, but they can’t afford to enter those schools,” Collins said.

She said needs-based scholarships are not funded enough by the state.

“We’ve got workforce needs that need to be addressed, and (her amendment) will help do that,” Collins said. “They will be earning a higher wage because of the certificate which will then put more income into the state, so it’s a great return on investment. Prisons and Medicaid will add no return on that investment.”

Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, criticized the “paper lottery” proposal that would generate an estimated $167 million a year when electronic lottery games would bring in more.

“It is ridiculous that we are piecemeal-ing together this paper lottery and the citizens really think they are going to the polls to vote on an actual lottery,” Givan said. “This is a bad bill. Why doesn’t 75% got to the (Education Trust Fund) and 25% goes to the general fund?  I would rather see all of the money go to the education budget.”

Clouse said amendments allocating more revenue to the state’s education coffers were possible if the bill came back up. Such changes could win over lawmakers still on the fence, he said.

Some who support the bill are less than enthused by the specific proposal, but want to allow the people the chance to vote.

“What I’ve heard from my district is that people would like the opportunity to vote on a lottery,” Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said. He voted to proceed with debate on the bill.

“Personally, I don’t love this bill. But I do believe the people should have the opportunity to vote, so that’s why I voted to advance it.”

The bill first stumbled Tuesday afternoon on a procedural vote to allow debate to continue, falling just one vote short with many lawmakers out of the chamber.

Republicans and Democrats alike were split over the constitutional amendment. Overall, 50 Republicans and three Democrats voted “Yes,”  while 14 Republicans and 22 Democrats voted “No.” Fourteen lawmakers did not vote, and there was one abstention.

Bill sponsor Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said he hoped House members would “do the right thing” while he waited to see if they’d again take up his bill.

He also defended the Senate’s proposal to spend all the revenue on the General Fund, saying it would allow the state to fully fun the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP.

“(Having) $167 million in the General Fund means the pressure to fund CHIP is off,” he said. “We can fund that. It means we have some growth in the General Fund instead of being stagnant. It means that we’ll be no longer stealing from the education fund every single step.  Almost like an independent branch.  It won’t solve all the problems, but it will give us a great deal more opportunity to deal with our circumstances.”

Lawmakers who’s districts include dog track casinos have said they’re worried about the bill’s impact on those facilities and claimed the paper-only lottery would benefit the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The Poarch Creeks recently told Alabama Daily News they don’t benefit from a paper lottery and that a negotiated gambling compact with the state would generate much more state revenue than a lottery.

A different lottery proposal in the Senate would have given the state’s four dog tracks access to the electronic gambling machines the federally-recognized Poarch Creeks currently have at their Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka casinos. That bill has not advanced.

Albritton originally said any new amendments on what the Senate passed would cost him votes, but was more hopeful Tuesday that an agreement could be worked out if the House passed the bill.

“I’m an optimistic person,” he said.

A proposed lottery in 2016 fell apart amid disputes about electronic gambling after first passing the Senate. Democrats wanted to allow electronic machines at state dog tracks and support fell apart when that wasn’t granted. That proposal would have split revenue 90/10 between the General Fund and education budgets.

Alabamians voted against a lottery in a 1999 constitutional amendment. Forty-five other states have lotteries.

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