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Alabama Democrats pitch lottery in governor's race, conservative critics pounce

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and former Alabama State Supreme Court chief justice Sue Bell Cobb have both rolled out educational lottery proposals as possible cornerstones for their campaigns. (file photo) 

Alabama's Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls are banking on a game of chance to reclaim the state's highest office from the GOP.

Former state Supreme Court chief justice Sue Bell Cobb and Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox have sought to make early splashes with their educational lotteries.

Alabama is one of just six states without a lottery. There's also no casino gambling. Only one other state - Utah - lies contiguous to states with lotteries or casinos, yet excludes casinos itself.

"It's an easy play for Democrats," said Steve Flowers, a Republican who once served in the Alabama House and now writes a political column published in 60 newspapers statewide. "If you put that issue on the ballot, it would win overwhelmingly."

Republican critics

Conservative critics in deep-red Alabama have pounced. To them, Maddox and Cobb are hanging their hopes on an failed issue from the past. The last lottery that went before the state's voters, in 1999, received a sound thumping.

Many lottery opponents also label the game as a regressive tax that's borne disproportionately by the poor. And they fret about a lottery serving as a gateway to all-out casinos. At present, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians operate electronic bingo palaces in the state; Maddox said he will seek a compact and work with the tribe.

"As soon as lottery comes to our state, gambling and casinos will follow, and believe me, no one in Alabama wants the likes of Tony Soprano lobbying the Statehouse," said state Sen. Bill Hightower of Mobile, one of the GOP's gubernatorial contenders.

Another Republican candidate, Scott Dawson, a youth pastor from Birmingham, warned that a lottery "preys on those who can least afford it."  He said, "I don't want Alabama to continue to be followers of other states. I want us to take the lead."

Still, resistance has cooled among some Republicans in recent times, as evidenced by Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh's suggestion in 2015 that a lottery could address shortfalls in state revenues. A year later, Gov. Robert Bentley urged a lottery's approval, a U-turn from his previous position.

For now, the two best-funded gubernatorial candidates - Gov. Kay Ivey and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, both Republicans - have remained relatively low-key on the subject.

Of the two, Battle agrees that the voters ought to have a say. As chief executive of north Alabama's leading city, he's no doubt familiar with the so-called "Magic Mile" at the Tennessee-Alabama line, a popular stopping point for fuel, fried chicken and Tennessee lottery tickets.

Battle said, "I look at lottery as a financial tool. We don't need to make a knee-jerk reaction about where that money will go. We need to look at what's worked and what hasn't worked in other states. If a majority of Alabamians want a lottery, then we need to get it right the first time."

Ivey, during an appearance in Mobile on Monday, said the Legislature needs put the issue on the table. In 2016, the House of Representatives declined to have a committee hold a public hearing on a lottery.

"Any lottery that is a simple lottery is popular with the people," Ivey said. But, like Hightower, she said she's wary, declaring that a lottery could "automatically open the door for all kinds of gambling." She added, "That's not a good thing."

Democratic cornerstone

Cobb and Maddox, though, believe a lottery can be an effective cornerstone for educational funding, and lift other boats, too.

Said Maddox: "Alabama is already in the past with us ranking at or near the bottom of every major quality-of-life measure. Even worse, surrounding states are moving past us rapidly and without leadership, we will never catch up."

Cobb said her plan, dubbed a "Lifelong Learner Lottery" will be "completely transparent" and will "guarantee funding for our schools." She said, "Currently, those funds leave Alabama to educate the children of Georgia, Florida and Tennessee."

The Democratic proponents say they believe that voters will at least take a fresh look at a lottery's potential benefits.

But Don Siegelman wonders whether a lottery could prevail even now. It was Siegelman, as Alabama's last Democratic governor, who saw his own "education lottery" go down to defeat in 1999.

"I don't know if it would get the votes from the people," said Siegelman, now 71 and residing in Vestavia Hills. "At least from my experience, the citizens of Alabama really don't trust the Legislature with their tax dollars. They are not going to trust them with the lottery dollars and that is why it's important to nail down the fact that the money would be spent on education."

Siegeleman's lottery idea lived on after he left office in 2003. In subsequent years, other Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, such as Ron Sparks (2010) and Parker Griffith (2014), promoted a lottery, but never won the chance to try to push it through the Legislature.

Maddox's "Alabama Education Lottery" plan would provide scholarships for students going into higher education or workforce development and expand the state's pre-K program. His plan also calls for the creation of a "Promise Program" to fund the state's poorest school systems and provide grants to help schools use existing health and psychological programs to improve education.

Cobb's lottery proposal aims to fund K-4 and childcare programs, career tech education for high school students and finance federal Pell Grants for those who qualify so they can attend two or four-year colleges tuition-free.

A third Democratic candidate running for governor, former state lawmaker James Fields, is also pushing his own education lottery program. He said his plan will invest in schools labeled as failing, finance federal Pell Grants, support community colleges or vocational/technical school education, and provide resources to curb addictive gambling.

Siegeleman said he hadn't had a chance to examine Cobb's or Field's plans yet. Commenting on Maddox's plan, he said: "The fact it would go toward scholarships and early childhood education makes it more attractive ... and gives voters assurances that their money won't be squandered."

Education lotteries

Both sides in the lottery debate like to point to Georgia's experiences.

Georgia established its lottery in 1992 under Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, who oversaw the development of the HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) scholarship program. Lottery proceeds annually flow into the program to help fund college tuition to high school students who perform well academically.

David Mustard, a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching professor of economics at the University of Georgia, is leery of so-called "education lotteries," explaining that most states have few avenues to prevent lawmakers from diverting the dollars elsewhere.

"The only times that I am aware of when you can effectively argue that lotteries generate long-run real increases in educational expenditures is when they fund new programs," Mustard said. "In such cases, the state cannot divert money away because it was not allocating money to start with."

Georgia's HOPE Scholarship, he said, is an example of a new program, created through lottery funds, dedicated solely for education.

State-run lotteries have plenty of skeptics in academia. To them, a lottery's performance in most states have failed to meet the lofty expectations initially sold to the public.

"In general, although there are a couple of exceptions, the so-called 'earmarked' or 'dedicated' lottery funds in state governments have failed to result in overall increases in state support for the targeted area (whether education, environment, elderly services, whatever)," wrote Denise Runge, dean of the Community & Technical College at the University of Alaska, in an email to AL.com. She has long studied and written about gambling and lotteries, and is a University of Alabama graduate.

Lotteries, she wrote, have allowed states to "shift spending from general revenue sources, such as income and/or sales taxes, away from the targeted policy, while generally still maintaining the same level of overall support. In other words, the lottery didn't cause funding for education to go down over time in total, but it didn't result in an overall increase in funding as a percent of total state revenues, either."

Florida's lottery is often held up as a poster child for criticism. The state's lottery website boasts about creating funds for school construction projects since 1987. In Escambia County, Florida - which abuts Baldwin County in Alabama -- $39 million in lottery proceeds have gone toward school projects since the lottery's inception in 1987, the website claims.

But the Florida Education Association says the lottery program has never come close to being a windfall, instead enabling lawmakers to short schools of other dollars that they'd previously received.

Dawson said there are other examples of state lotteries that are more problematic. He cites Illinois, where lottery payments for winnings of over $25,000 were nearly frozen because state lawmakers couldn't get a budget approved before the end of the fiscal year.

Dawson also questions the effectiveness of the Georgia Lottery. He said the HOPE Scholarship program tends to reward "rich kids," while much of the ticket-buying is done by the working class.

Sid Chapman, president, Georgia Association of Educators, said his organization -- unlike the Florida Education Association's views of its state's lottery --believes the Georgia Lottery has lived up to its initial promise of funding pre-K and scholarships to those wanting to attend a state college or university.

But Chapman said proper funding continues to be a challenge.

"The other key, as with any pot of money, is to have competent stewardship at the helm and to continually monitor the funds to ensure they are being used for the intended purpose and not being siphoned off for other unrelated projects and purposes," Chapman said in an email statement.

Dawson said he strongly doubts that Alabama lawmakers would be good stewards of lottery resources. Said Dawson, "Do we really think somehow and someway that mysteriously, our elected officials will do what's best with the money we are giving them?"

Early disputes

Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizen's Action Program, an interdenominational ministry that bills itself as "Alabama's moral compass," has taken aim at Maddox's assertion that a lottery can bring in $300 million.

"That is not possible," said Godfrey, citing the Arkansas lottery, where proceeds to the state were around $72 million in 2015. Godfrey believes Alabama could expect, at most, around $98 million.

Godfrey said the $300 million is based on a 2015 study performed by Auburn University at Montgomery. That study estimates Alabama could reap $331.7 million in annual revenue from a state-run lottery. The estimate was based on per capita lottery revenues in 43 states with lotteries and Alabama's population.

Maddox said he disagrees with Godfrey's "findings of facts." Arkansas, for instance, allocates 21 percent of lottery proceeds for state programs like education. Comparably, Tennessee allocates 39 percent, Georgia 27 percent and Florida 30 percent. The U.S. average is 33 percent, according to the Auburn-Montgomery analysis.

"For months, our policy team has researched relevant studies and financial data from surrounding states in crafting the Alabama Education Lottery," he said. "The cruelty of ALCAP's position is that Alabama's children are not being prepared for a 21st century economy, and too many Alabamians can't afford college or workforce development."

He added, "To do nothing is forfeiting our children's future. It is easy to cast stones and aspersions; however, working Alabama families are tired of educating the next generations from Florida, Georgia and Tennessee."

SDawson.JPGScott Dawson

Cobb, to her end, is challenging critics like Dawson to come up with alternative methods to fund education that don't involve a tax increase.

This year, the Legislature is poised to approve a $6.6 billion Education Trust Fund budget, the largest in a decade, that includes pay raises for teachers. A strong economy bolstering sales and income taxes is fueling this year's spending blueprint.

Dawson said he'll pitch a more detailed program in the weeks ahead. "The best vision for Alabama is to have a well thought out plan for businesses to grow and communities to thrive so we don't have to take a chance on gambling," he said.

Derryn Moten, chairman of the History and Political Science Department at Alabama State University, said warns that the issue may be "moralized" in the months to come.

"I recall people saying, 'this is going to exploit the vulnerable and marginalize the poor' and I do think all those things are potentially true,' said Moten, recalling past elections in which lottery was discussed. "Once the election was over, there was very little talk about marginalizing the poor and so on. We are going to hear a lot of moralizing, but I think a lot of it will be disingenuous."

This story was updated at 12:40 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, to indicate that Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox will seek a compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in authorizing a state-run lottery.

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