Alabama Gov. Bentley pushing for lottery in August special session

Published 8:13 am Saturday, July 30, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Gov. Robert Bentley said Friday that a special session on a proposed state lottery will begin Aug. 15, a time frame that could have the measure before voters in November — but only if lawmakers reach quick agreement.

“As Alabamians we are blessed to live in a truly great state, but for it to be the best that it can be, we must solve some financial problems that have held us back for decades,” Bentley said in a video announcement released by his press office.

The Republican governor announced this week that he is bringing lawmakers back to Montgomery for a special session on a state lottery, urging them to take steps to get a referendum before voters. Bentley says a lottery would generate $225 million annually to help fund state services.

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Bentley Press Secretary Yasamie R. August said the governor was aiming to get the measure on the ballot with the Nov. 8 presidential election, an election certain to bring large voter turnout. To accomplish that, lawmakers would have to approve the lottery bill by Aug. 24.

The governor said he thought a lottery was the “best” chance to solve the state’s fiscal problems after exhausting other options. Lawmakers in 2015 largely rejected Bentley’s call for a $541 million tax increase to avoid cuts in state services.

Bentley has not released crucial details of his proposal such as how the money would be used. However, he has repeatedly alluded to the state’s Medicaid program.

“This is not just about a lottery. This is about our people. I will not as your governor, and also as a physician, watch as our most vulnerable and most helpless go without a doctor’s care. I can’t bear to think of a half a million children who through no fault of their own are born into poverty and have no basic way to get basic medical treatment,” the governor said.

Lawmakers this spring overrode a Bentley veto to enact a budget that provides $700 million for the state Medicaid program in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Bentley said $785 million is needed to avoid cuts to the health care program for 1 million Alabamians, mostly children, the disabled and the elderly.

Alabama is one of six states — along with Mississippi, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada — without a state lottery. Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman made a state lottery to fund education the centerpiece of his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, but voters rejected it in 1999 under heavy opposition from church groups.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, a group that has opposed efforts to legalize gambling, argued a lottery will prey upon a state’s poor.

“It is state sponsored which means the state targets the poorest people,” Godfrey said

Some lawmakers said they thought attitudes have changed since that 1999 defeat.

Republican Sen. Jim McClendon, who has been in discussions with the governor on the lottery bill he plans to introduce, said the people of his district overwhelmingly want to vote on a lottery and don’t understand why Alabama does not have one.

However, the lottery proposal faces many difficult procedural hurdles in a Legislature, where some members flatly oppose gambling and others are expected to push to include casino gambling. Lottery legislation faltered in the last legislative session over disagreement over how the money should be used.

Since 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 an amendment to allow a lottery.