Craig Ford - It will take more than a lottery

August 5, 2016 chris
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In less than two weeks, the state legislature will return to Montgomery to take up a lottery bill that no one has seen.

Gov. Robert Bentley, who has prided himself on using “the element of surprise” when it comes to calling special legislative sessions, has still not released any details or even had any conversations with legislators about the lottery he plans to introduce.

All the governor has said is that his lottery will be used for the General Fund budget instead of the education budget.

But the governor knows that the lottery will not solve the Medicaid shortfall or fill in the other gaps in the General Fund, and it certainly won’t solve Alabama’s infrastructure problems.

The Report Card for Alabama’s Infrastructure, which was released last December by the American Society of Civil Engineers, graded Alabama’s roadways as a D+. The report found that nearly half of our interstate and state highways are in fair, poor, or very poor condition. Our bridges were not much better, earning a grade of C-.

Like our roads and bridges, our Medicaid program has also suffered in recent years. The severe cuts to Medicaid have helped lead to the closing of 10 rural hospitals since Republicans took control of state government. It’s not just hospitals in rural Alabama that have suffered; nursing homes and doctors in private practice have taken a hit financially, and many are now closing shop or turning away Medicaid patients.

When a doctor or a hospital goes out of business, it affects those who have private health insurance just as much as it does those on Medicaid.

These are serious issues with life-and-death consequences for thousands of Alabamians, and the lottery will not solve these problems.

Lottery revenue is stagnant, meaning it does not increase year after year. In fact, in some states lottery revenue has started to decline. Meanwhile, the cost of healthcare continues to grow each year, which, in turn, drives up the price tag for Medicaid, prisons and state employee benefits.

At best, the lottery would only be a temporary bail out for legislators who don’t want to make tough decisions about the budget. In a few years, the costs in the budget would outgrow the lottery revenue and we would be right back where we are now.

The situation is no different than it was in 2012, when the Republican Supermajority borrowed almost a half-billion dollars from the state’s savings account to prop up the General Fund until they could get through the next election.

The people of Alabama deserve more than just another band-aid for the budget. We deserve a real solution so we don’t have to keep hearing each year about how Medicaid is in another funding crisis and needs more money to keep our healthcare system from collapsing.

The people also deserve a lottery bill that produces a return on our investment. An education lottery that specifically uses the lottery revenue to fund scholarships is not just the best use of the lottery money, it’s the only use that does something productive and makes life better for the people of Alabama. Any other use of the lottery is just another government bailout.

In the coming days, Gov. Bentley will announce the official “call for a special session,” in which he will specifically lay out his proposals. In that call, the governor must address infrastructure for economic and industrial development, as well as public safety. The governor’s call must also offer a real solution to Medicaid to save our rural hospitals and keep our doctors and nursing homes in business.

A lottery is a supplement to government funding, not a replacement. A lottery alone will not solve our crippling infrastructure or protect our rural hospitals, nursing homes and physicians in private practice. But a lottery can create opportunities for millions of Alabamians if we use it to invest in education scholarships that help our people earn a better living.

Gov. Bentley is the leader of our state. If he wants to truly lead, the governor needs to offer more and better solutions to our problems than the lottery.

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