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Lottery, gambling compact bills introduced in State House

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new version of a lottery bill has been filed in the Alabama House with enough co-sponsors to easily get it through that chamber, if it makes it to a vote.

A different lottery bill filed recently in the Senate also sets up a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to allow table games at its casinos, including two new sites in Jefferson County and north Alabama.

Both bills are constitutional amendments requiring voter approval. There are about two months remaining in this legislative session and many more steps would be needed before either proposal could be placed on the ballot.

On Wednesday, Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said he filed the new lottery bill to “get it in place,” but is not yet pushing to get it on the House floor.

“I’m not interested in tying up the House’s time if the Senate isn’t going to address it,” Clouse said.

The bills came after Gov. Kay Ivey last month told lawmakers she wants the “facts” on the financial impact of a lottery and expanded gambling in Alabama and created panel to produce them. She said she won’t support any action on a lottery until she has a report from her study group, which will likely come after the legislative session has ended in May. Constitutional amendments don’t need the governor’s signature.

Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola on Wednesday said Ivey fully supports the people of Alabama ultimately being able to vote on a lottery or other gambling items.

“In establishing her Task Force, she is aiding the people so that they have all of the facts and best information,” Maiola said. “Gov. Ivey believes that the best route for Alabama to take with this issue is to establish the facts first, and then get it in front of the people for a vote. She has certainly shared this message with legislators from both sides of the aisle.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, is a co-sponsor on Clouse’s House Bill 418. But Wednesday he said the House will wait for Ivey’s findings.

“The public wants us to address a lottery but we are working with, and make sure you emphasize this, we are working with the governor’s office and the gambling commission,” McCutcheon said. “That is priority.

“I do support a lottery. But at the end of the day we’re going to wait on the commission before we try to do any action on it.”

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the compact issue does need more study, but a simple lottery may not.

“There are a lot of proposals floating around,” Ward said. “Oklahoma has dozens of compacts, so it gets real complicated real quick. On the lottery side, we’ve been debating this for over 20 years … I think people are tired of dealing with this, they’re ready to go ahead and move this along.”

Clouse’s bill would split revenues, estimated at about $167 million a year, between the state’s pre-kindergarten program and higher education scholarships.

The state’s voluntary First Class pre-K program is the nation’s highest ranked for quality, but funded at a level that only reaches about 40% of the state’s 4-year-olds.

The bill has the same text of another Clouse filed in February, but now it has a long list of co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle.

Clouse has said he would like the amendment to go to voters on the high-turnout November ballot.

He hadn’t yet talked to Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Aniston, about the bill, which has been assigned to the Economic Development and Tourism Committee.

Meanwhile, last week Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, filed a separate lottery bill that calls for a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. It would allow for two new Poarch Creek casinos in Jefferson County and northeast Alabama, each paying a $250 million licensing fee to the state. Then, the Poarch Creek would pay a 25% tax on gambing revenue at all its sites. Existing dog track and bingo operations in the state would pay the same tax, under the bill.

Lottery proceeds from the sales of PowerBall and other tickets would go into the Education Trust Fund to be appropriated as lawmakers see fit. The bill creates a Gaming Trust Fund to collect gaming license fees and taxes.

Money from the fund would pay the expenses of a new Alabama Gaming Commission and “annually, a percentage of the monies remaining in the fund determined by the Legislature shall be divided equally among the counties of the state on a per capita basis,” the bill states.

There is not yet a fiscal note on Albritton’s bill estimating total possible revenues.

Albritton, who like Clouse has previously sponsored lottery legislation, said putting the lottery and casino gambling in one package is the only way to do it. In previous sessions, lottery bills have been derailed by opposition by gambling interests.

“I don’t think waiting is going to help. We need to outline where we want to go,” Albritton said about the current study group. “What I’ve tried to do is address this thing holistically and give them some guidance.”

In the House, Clouse has disagreed, saying a lottery and casino gambling efforts need to be separate.

In an Alabama Daily News / Mason-Dixon February poll of 625 registered Alabama voters, 80% said they support establishing a state lottery. Eleven percent were opposed to it and 9% were undecided.

Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, is a co-sponsor on the House bill but said he expects amendments.

He thinks the proceeds should go to education, but said 50% to pre-K is too much.

“Everyone is for four-year-old pre-school, but here again, we have third and fourth graders who can’t read,” Greer said.

Greer, whose hometown isn’t far from the Tennessee state line, said that whenever there’s a lottery bill in the State House, “the only opposition I hear is from Tennessee.”

“Alabamians’ money ought to stay in Alabama,” Greer said.

He said he opposes gambling, but Alabamians should have the chance to vote on the issue.

“Leave it up to them.”

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, is in the minority of House members who didn’t put his name on the bill. Kiel said the primary issue to expanding pre-K isn’t funding, but the lack of available classroom space. And about scholarships, he’d like more definition in the bill about who would qualify and where the money could be spent.

If it gets to the House floor he’s going to offer an amendment.

“Under my proposal, all profit would go to K-12 schools to meet critical infrastructure needs including the ability of the state to use this money for a bond issue for infrastructure needs,” Kiel said. “I am also open to using up to half of the proceeds for post secondary scholarships, including trade school and career tech in order to meet the workforce demands of future business and industry in Alabama.”

Alabama Daily News reporters Caroline Beck and Todd Stacy contributed to this report.

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