Alabama Lottery Bill Out of Time

Wednesday May 19th 2021

Alabama Lottery supporters have been frustrated again as the 2021 legislative session finished on Monday without a gaming bill being passed. The state remains one of the few without its own lottery, and is surrounded by neighbors that offer legal gambling.

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A lottery and casino bill was approved by the Senate in April but never made it to the House, as lawmakers failed to agree on the details of the legislation before the clock ran out.

In the drama-filled arena of Alabama gambling legislation, which has been compared to Game of Thrones, lawmakers were at odds over language in the bill, casino locations, and the beneficiaries of lottery revenue. Speaker Mac McCutcheon said that legislators simply ran out of time to find a compromise this session.

However, there does seem to be increased in-principle support for an Alabama Lottery, holding out the possibility that a bill could yet gain support in the future. Gov. Kay Ivey is now a strong proponent of creating a lottery to undercut illegal gaming and generate badly-needed funds for state programs.

The introduction of a lottery in neighboring Mississippi in 2019, which has seen Alabamians cross the border to pick up tickets, has given the issue a renewed focus as gambling dollars flow into surrounding states while Alabama struggles with persistent budget shortfalls.

A report from a gaming taskforce set up by Gov. Ivey also backed a lottery, stating that unregulated gambling was already widespread in the state.

In addition to a lottery, the legislation would also have allowed nine casinos with full Class III gaming, plus sports betting. The wide-ranging nature of the bill was supposed to give it a boost, with sweeteners for stakeholders who have been rivals in the past, including the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and Alabama's five racetracks.

The bill enjoyed bipartisan sponsorship amid hopes that this would be the year Alabama finally enacted gambling legislation. If the bill had passed the legislature, it would have set the stage for voters to decide on an amendment to the state constitution to create a lottery.

However, the ambitious plans foundered on May 6, when Republicans introduced a stripped-down lottery-only bill, prompting accusations from Democrats that they were not consulted on what was previously a bipartisan effort.

One of the hot-button issues lawmakers squabbled over was the role of Medicaid funding, with Democrats in favor and Republicans believing it was too costly. Ultimately, the scope of the topic was too broad for the limited time available to reach agreement in this session. The number and location of casinos was another area where legislators butted heads.

"The Democratic Caucus, in conjunction with the Black Caucus, of course wanted a designated funding for Medicaid ... in addition to the locations and making sure we are not the entity picking winners and losers," Rep. Merika Coleman, Democrat of Pleasant Grove, said.

"There's disagreements on how that could be worded," Rep. Kyle South, Republican of Fayette, commented. "Obviously, there has been an emphasis on healthcare around the state due to COVID, but even prior to then. We want to make sure those funds are available for those services both rural and urban, while not tying our hands to one specific sets of funds, for funding mechanism."

South said he could understand lottery fans' exasperation. "I'm just as frustrated as they are because I do want to see us get to a point where we're not leaving money on the table. There's gaming already in the state of Alabama. It's totally unregulated, untaxed, and a lot of this is to control gaming."

Although extensive talks were held to try to move the bill forward, the complexities could not be resolved by the session's deadline. "Generally, these were discussions that would have been going on between the House and Senate, but then when you throw in the governor's office also wanting to play in this as well," Coleman noted. "So, now you have these three entities coming together, and we literally ran out of time."

Coleman is not done trying to negotiate on a lottery bill, however, saying she would welcome a special session devoted to Alabama's gaming issues. However, Gov. Ivey said she had no plans to initiate a special session without evidence that legislators could reach an agreement.

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