Wednesday, 17 August 2016 09:50
MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama senators today will debate dueling lottery bills — including one that could allow electronic gambling machines at state dog tracks — as lawmakers try to strike a compromise on gambling legislation.
"I think we will know tomorrow the fate of lottery in Alabama, at least for the foreseeable future," said Sen. Jim McClendon, sponsor of both bills.
The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee on Tuesday approved two separate lottery proposals, putting them in line for key Senate floor votes Wednesday. However, the bills face an uncertain future in an Alabama Legislature divided over gambling. Proponents need 21 votes to get the proposed constitutional amendment through the 35-member Senate and on to the House.
"There aren't 21 votes as we stand here today to pass it. All we can do is let the process work to see if there is a way to get enough people to get to an agreement to get to 21. I'm ready to debate all day long," Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said.
Gov. Robert Bentley called lawmakers into special session to consider a lottery as a means to raise money for the state's cash-strapped Medicaid program.
The committee approved a Bentley-backed bill that would authorize a lottery and send the proceeds to the state's general fund budget. The second committee-passed bill also would allow electronic lottery terminals — which can be manufactured to resemble slot machines or video poker games — at four state dog tracks. The bill would send most of the money to the general fund, but it would earmark $100 million for education.
Because the Alabama Constitution bans most games of chance, three-fifths of legislators would have to approve the legislation and a majority of voters would have to approve changing the state constitution to allow a lottery or gambling.
"My constituents asked me for the right to vote. I would hope my fellow senators would honor that the people want to vote on this," McClendon said.
Alabama is one of six states — along with Mississippi, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada — without a state lottery. Voters in 1999 rejected then-Gov. Don Siegelman's proposed lottery that came under heavy opposition from church groups and out-of-state gambling interests.
Many lawmakers said opposition has dissipated since that 1999 defeat, but lottery proposals face a difficult calculus in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Republicans are split on the idea of legalized gambling. Many Democrats want to help the dog tracks where electronic bingo casinos and workers were put out of business by state enforcement actions.
"If we are truly looking for gaming to save Medicaid, we need to reopen and tax our existing gaming facilities, and add a statewide lottery," Senate Minority Leader Quinton Ross said in a statement.
However, adding the electronic games — something that could pick up votes among Democrats aligned with the tracks — could peel away GOP support for a bill. "To me it's basically a slot machine," Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said of the electronic terminals.
The bill does not describe the video lottery games. They have taken various forms in other states. Oregon markets its video lottery machines as "Vegas-style games."
Attorney General Luther Strange on Tuesday cautioned that his legal team reviewed the bills and believed allowing the electronic lottery terminals "will lead to casino gambling and protracted litigation" over gambling.
McClendon disputed that, calling it one lawyer's opinion.
The floor vote comes a day after gambling opponents and supporters squared off in a public hearing. Joe Godfrey, a longtime opponent of legalized gambling, told the committee that lotteries and casinos prey upon poor residents' hopes of striking it rich.
"The state literally becomes a con artist deceiving its own citizens into believing they are going to win big money," Godfrey said.
Mac McArthur, director of the Alabama State Employees Association, told the committee that a lottery appears to be the only way to obtain money for the state's general fund budget. McArthur invoked Bentley's comparison of lotteries to leisure suits, saying it might not be a first choice in the closet, but it is the one that fits.
"This is the only reasonable solution, possible solution, leisure suit solution that is out there," McArthur said.
The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. today.