Craig Ford - Alabamians want a lottery, but not a blank check lottery

January 15, 2016 chris
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As droves of Alabamians recently flooded into Tennessee, Georgia and Florida for a chance to win the $1.6 billion Powerball, it’s obvious the people of Alabama want to play the lottery.

People in 44 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands are all allowed to purchase lottery tickets. Alabama is one of just six states that don’t have a lottery.

Instead, every year Alabama sends hundreds of millions of dollars to other states to play their lotteries; spending our money to pay for those states’ government services, and to send their kids to college at our expense.

People in Alabama want the lottery, and clearly they are going to play it whether it’s here in Alabama or in a neighboring state. That’s why, after years of fighting it tooth and nail, prominent Republicans are now coming out in support of a lottery…sort of.

Rep. Alan Harper and Sen. Jim McClendon, both Republicans, have introduced a lottery bill for the upcoming legislative session. Only a few months ago, Rep. Harper told me he would not allow my lottery bill to be brought up for a vote in his committee. So for him to flip-flop on the lottery is a big deal. In fact, it makes me wonder how sincere he and Sen. McClendon really are.

The lottery bill that Rep. Harper and Sen. McClendon have proposed essentially is a “blank check lottery.” All their bill does is make it legal for the legislature to create a lottery. It doesn’t say how the lottery will be run, who will run it, or, most important of all, how the money will be spent.

When Don Siegelman’s lottery failed in 1999, one of the main reasons was because the bill had too much pork spending in it. The people were clear – they didn’t want a lottery that included wasteful spending.

Now the Republicans have offered a lottery with no details. They basically are saying, “Give us the ability to create a lottery, and just trust us to work out the details later on.”

I don’t believe the people of Alabama trust the government or legislators enough to give them a blank check and hope the legislature spends the money the right way. And I find it ironic that the same Republican legislators who have spent decades talking about how you can’t trust the government and how everything the government does is wrong or will fail, are now the ones asking the people of Alabama to blindly trust them with a blank check.

And that’s why I wonder if Rep. Harper and Sen. McClendon are serious about passing a real lottery. Two politicians who fought hard to kill the lottery just a few months ago, and who say government is wasteful and only messes things up, are now suddenly saying they are for the lottery and we should give the government a blank check and just trust them to work out the details later on?

Something about that just doesn’t sound right. They know that the lottery is a one-shot deal: if it doesn’t pass this time, we probably won’t get another vote on it in our lifetimes. So maybe their real agenda is to put out a lottery bill that is so bad the people have to vote it down, and then they can say, “Hey, we let the people vote and they didn’t want it.”

But beyond that, their lottery bill also means that, even if the people vote for it in November, it will still be at least another six months, and probably another year, before the legislature can create the lottery and people can start playing.

That’s why I’ve already filed an education lottery bill that would put the money into scholarships for our kids. With my bill, you know where the money will go. And because it’s specifically for scholarships, the legislature can’t use the lottery money to pay for pork projects or, as some states have done with their “education” lotteries, transfer money out of the education budget to pay for prisons or other things, and repay the education budget with lottery money. A lottery for scholarships will also boost our economy, because the money parents save on college tuition can then be spent on other things.

We finally have a real chance to get a vote on a lottery. But we have to make sure we do it the right way. If we put a lottery on the ballot in November, it needs to be one that people can vote for, and I just don’t see people voting for a blank check lottery.

Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.