Lottery bill sparks controversy

Matt Firpo

Opinion Editor

The start of this week marks the beginning of a special session of the Alabama state Legislature, which Gov. Robert Bentley called to specifically propose bills to enact a state lottery.

Gambling has a long, complicated history, dating back to 1901 when the state banned gambling in the Alabama constitution. Gambling is listed under the Alabama Code as an offense against public health, and persons illegally owning a gambling device can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and spend up to a year in jail. They can also be fined up to $6,000.

One hundred years later, our elected leaders are introducing five different bills that could make gambling a reality in the state. Although some games are legal in certain areas, these bills would create even more outlets.

Although culture has changed drastically since the 1900s, the government has made few adjustments to the longstanding gambling ban.

The state allows for betting on greyhound and horse races because they aren’t necessarily based on chance but rather on the skill of the animals.

There are also three casinos operated by the Poarch Creek Indians. These casinos are operated on their land in Wetumpka, Montgomery and Atmore.

Despite these exceptions, the government’s stance on gambling has remained the same over the past century. What is driving this new legislation?

This situation is the result of a series of decisions by the state. Last year, Gov. Bentley requested that Alabama’s Medicaid program be allocated $785 million, but was given only $700 million from the state’s general fund. This difference has yet to be addressed and has forced Medicaid to begin cutting services to continue functioning.

Gov. Bentley has created the lottery bill in order to create more funding for the state in the future. Other bills being proposed will also legalize gambling. Because they require a constitutional amendment, they will require a three-fifths majority in the House as well as the Senate.

“The lottery would fund it (Medicaid) long term,” Gov. Bentley said in an interview with “I’m not saying forever, but it would certainly help long-term. It’s the only chance we have to help the people in need in this state.”

He also said that he did not know how they forsaw filling the funding gap for Medicaid this year.

On Tuesday, Aug. 16, the Tourism and Marketing committee approved two bills to go to the Senate floor. Both bills were proposed by Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville.

The first of the bills proposes a constitutional amendment to allow voters to decide to establish a lottery that would benefit the state general fund. The other bill will allow for lottery machines to be installed at the state’s Greyhound terminals.

A lottery could potentially produce a massive amount of income for the state. According to a study published in the Montgomery Advertiser, the lottery would produce $70 million a year for the state’s general fund.

Although this seems like a sustainable method to fund the state, the government has to consider the cost and consequences of such legislation.

Besides already having to pass these bills through the Senate and the House, the proposal will have to be approved by the public come Election Day.

What would be the cost to create such an institution? There is also little guarantee that the lottery would provide the funds predicted.

It also seems improbable that a state lottery is the only solution to long-term funding for the state’s general fund. The state has yet to decide how BP’s $1 billion settlement for the Gulf oil spill will be spent.

How would a lottery affect educational funding in the state?

According to the Georgia Lottery website, the Georgia Lottery corporation has donated more than $980 million toward education programs solely funded by the lottery.

If the lottery succeeds in Alabama, would funds be diverted to the state’s education fund? Will excess funds be invested to buffer against a recession?

The presence of a lottery would also place a burden on the lower-income households of the state. According to a study published on PBS, households making less than $13,000 a year spend on average 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets.

The chances of winning are also minuscule. Calculated, the odds of actually winning are one in a million.

Is the governor’s solution for the state’s future funding enough to convince the public that the benefits of a lottery would outweigh the costs it would ensue?

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