HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A proposal to let Alabama voters decide on a state lottery died in the Alabama Senate last week despite the fact both the House and Senate passed lottery bills.
The bills couldn’t be reconciled, essentially killing the effort for the legislature’s special session.
Jess Brown, WHNT News 19 political analyst, said Gov. Robert Bentley should have done more in preparing the legislature for a lottery proposal.
“If you’re going to bring a high-profile, controversial proposal like this to the table, you need to bring all the key stakeholders to the table before you go public with your bill,” Brown said.
Bentley offered a lottery-only bill in late July. The special session began Aug. 15.
Brown said the failure to reconcile the two competing bills approved by the House and Senate could have been avoided.
“There was an opportunity for a lottery bill to pass. I believe, but a better job had to have been done up front doing political homework,” Brown said. “If political management was a profession, we’ve got a malpractice case here.”
The House version offered a narrow version of what constitutes a lottery, saying it required a ticket. The Senate bill didn’t offer a close definition.
The difference led to a revolt in the Senate by Democrats who had supported a lottery, saying the definition by the House was too narrow.
The details matter as some in the legislature wanted a lottery proposal that allowed lottery machines at state dog tracks. If such a proposal were approved by voters, the Poarch Creek Indians, who have a monopoly on casinos in Alabama, would also be able to add lottery terminals.
The bill favored by the governor created a lottery, a lottery commission and participation in the multi-state Powerball. It didn’t address electronic lottery machines, but also left many details to the legislation that would follow if voters approved a lottery.
Speaker McCutcheon Reacts
WHNT News 19 spoke with House Speaker Mac McCutcheon about the bill's failure on Tuesday.
"We didn't see this coming," he said, although he said it's not entirely a disappointment. "It was a tough vote for all the members, and it was going to give the people the right to vote which I think could have helped us with some financial issues... But at the end of the day the process worked."
He added that it is hard to say right now whether lottery is dead.
"I don't know, that's a point of discussion we'll have to carry on," he commented.
He said he has high hopes for the BP bill the Senate will take up when the session starts again.
"I wouldn't say it's a last hope, but it's very important," he said. "I feel like the House sent a good BP bill up, it was a compromise, and I would like to see us pass that for the sake of the Medicaid and the debt issue."
He added that the upcoming regular session is a chance for the Legislature to address long-term funding needs.
Could Poarch Creek Indians and Victoryland have made a difference?
Brown said Bentley’s failure to involve the Poarch Creek Indians and Victoryland owner Milton McGregor likely doomed the lottery bill.
“The Poarch Creeks at the present time have the least incentive to negotiate because they have a de facto monopoly on quasi-casino gambling,” Brown said. “They’re making a mint.
“The party who benefits most from the status quo may be the group you have to give the most to.”
But last week Bentley denied any discussions with the Poarch Creek Indians after reports he was discussing a compact for a casino in north Alabama.
“The rumor that I have negotiated some type of compact or some type of an agreement, with the Poarch Creek Indians, that is, as I said yesterday, that is blatantly false,” Bentley said. “I have never done that and I have no intentions of doing that.”
Brown said the lottery may be dead for the moment, but there is too much popular support for a lottery to kill it. He said the state also hasn’t found a long-term solution to funding Medicaid.
Bentley expressed frustration Friday with the legislature for failing to support a lottery bill, which he said was vital to funding Medicaid.
“It was a vote against those children, those half a million children out there that are in poverty today,” the governor said.
Brown said there is a compelling argument to fund Medicaid, but Bentley didn’t make it.
“If he wanted to demonstrate the real need for adequately funding Medicaid, he has to crank up the machinery of the Governor’s office, and have events from the Tennessee line to the Gulf Coast,” Brown said.
The governor should have traveled and shown, “the services being provided to elderly in Alabama, nursing homes, to the services being provided to poor children in Alabama – or to disabled individuals in Alabama.”
Bentley's office pointed WHNT News 19 today to several visits the governor made to clinics and other facilities around the state with ties to Medicaid.
What's next for the lottery?
Brown said the Bentley and the legislature still have a path to passing a lottery, but it will take leadership.
“Real political leadership is taking risks to build coalitions,” Brown said. “The question becomes how much political risk is Robert Bentley, Senator Marsh and Speaker McCutcheon going to take?
“To try and build the coalition that is necessary if you want some revenue from gambling to help pay for public services in Alabama.”