By Steve Flowers
In 1998, Gov. Don Siegelman ran for Governor of Alabama on a platform of proposing that his administration would enact legislation creating a state lottery. It would be patterned after Georgia’s lottery, which gave the bulk of the proceeds to an educational fund. That was over two decades ago.
Our neighboring state of Georgia has reaped billions of dollars from its lottery in the last three decades, which has allowed them to outdistance us by a country mile in educating their children. A good many of those Georgia students attend college in their state free under the Hope Scholarship Program funded with these lottery dollars. A substantial amount of these funds going to Georgia students come from Alabamians who buy Georgia Lottery tickets.
Siegelman proceeded to push this lottery program through the legislature and placed it on the ballot for a referendum in 1999. It was poised to pass. However, in the waning days of the referendum campaign, the Mississippi Choctaw Indian Gambling Syndicate placed millions of dollars of misleading information and ads into the state to defeat the referendum and avoid competition. They narrowly defeated the Alabama referendum. The state has lost untold billions in revenues to our sister states of Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida in the last 20 years.
You can bet your bottom dollar that if a lottery referendum were put on the ballot now or in 2022, it would pass in a New York minute. Even the most conservative folks in our state would vote for it, if for only one reason: they are sick and tired of their money going to our neighboring states to fund their schools, roads and prisons while we go wanting.
Last year, one of the legislature’s most respected and influential members, Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), offered a lottery bill. It might have passed, but he acquiesced to Gov. Ivey, who wisely said let’s look at all the alternatives. She did the right thing to look at the big picture. A simple lottery is outdated. We missed the boat 20 years ago. Gambling has evolved technologically like the rest of the world. If there was big money for the state to garner 20 years ago, it has multiplied by more than 20 times in those years.
Therefore, the Governor said, “Let’s look at the big picture, and if we are going to do it, let’s do it right and get a really good bite of the apple.” She appointed one of the most stellar blue-ribbon panels of Alabamians ever assembled to study all aspects, parameters and revenues available from gambling.
Ivey’s study group on gambling policy came back with its recommendations in December. Its study shows that Alabama could raise between $500 million and $700 million from a lottery, casinos and sports betting if voters approved a constitutional amendment expanding gambling in the state. The group said that gambling will work in Alabama, and its conclusion was that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
The advantage would be tremendous new revenue for the state plus creation of new jobs. A disadvantage would be the costs surrounding mental health, social and legal problems from those who develop gambling disorders.
They found that 60% of Alabama’s adult population would likely participate in expanded gambling and about 3% would become compulsive gamblers who would cost the state. The study group found that a lottery would raise an estimated $200 to $300 million. In addition, casinos could raise $300 to $400 million. The new gambling revenue could raise as much as one-third of the General Fund budget. The expansion of legalized gambling could create 19,000 jobs in Alabama.
In conclusion, they were adamant that there should be a regulatory authority to regulate, administer and enforce the laws. This regulatory commission should make sure laws and regulations are adhered to and should be flexible, protective of consumers and responsive to technology and be competitive in payouts unlike the current Indian casino monopoly in the state. This Creek Indian Gambling Syndicate has garnered a lot of political muscle in the state legislature, and it will be the largest obstacle that will stand in the way of a constitutional amendment reaching the voters in Alabama.
Hopefully, the legislature will see fit to allow the people of Alabama the right to vote on whether or not they want to reap the rewards of gigantic gambling dollars.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.