After nearly two decades of waiting, it seemed like the people of Alabama were finally going to get the chance to vote on a lottery.
On July 27, Gov. Robert Bentley announced, “We need your help solving our funding crisis. I’m giving you the opportunity to vote on a statewide lottery.” And the governor deserves credit for pushing the lottery and getting farther than any other governor has since former Gov. Don Siegelman was in office.
It wasn’t a perfect lottery bill, not by far. But it was the best we could hope to get through this current legislature.
Elected officials who have spent decades fighting the lottery finally seemed willing to give it a chance. There were the usual fights over the morality of gambling and the impact it would have on the poor (which is funny, considering most of the politicians opposing the lottery have never shown much concern for the poor before now, and most of those who oppose gambling will, in November, vote for a presidential candidate who has made millions of dollars from the casinos he owns).
And there were disagreements over how much of the lottery revenue should be used for education and how much should go to the state’s general fund, and whether any of the money should be earmarked for volunteer fire departments. There were even arguments over whether the state should be allowed to advertise the lottery (the state wouldn’t have been able to advertise the lottery in the final version of the bill).
As flawed as it was, the lottery seemed like it would finally pass. The lottery barely made it through the Senate, getting the exact number of votes needed to pass. When it came to the House of Representatives, it failed on the first vote but passed a few minutes later on a second vote. But because the House had changed the bill, it had to go back to the Senate.
The senators could have agreed to a compromise or accepted the House’s changes, and the people would finally be allowed to vote. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the lottery failed, and the legislature turned to its second option to save Medicaid – the BP bill.
The BP bill allows the state to take out a bond issue using the money from the BP oil spill settlement, and allocates that money between debt repayment, Medicaid and coastal road projects.
Nobody is entirely happy about the BP bill, but it was the only compromise that could make it out of the legislature, and it is a good bill that we desperately needed to pass.
Some legislators wanted to use most (if not all) of the money to pay down the state’s debt. Others wanted to see more spent on Medicaid.
Legislators representing Mobile and Baldwin counties wanted a bigger portion to go to their local road projects, arguing that they were hit the hardest by the oil spill and that investing in coastal roadways would benefit the state’s economy.
The bill that passed the legislature addresses all of these concerns, though none of the three will be getting as much money as its advocates had hoped. But that’s what compromise is, and that’s how the legislature is supposed to work.
Compromise worked for the BP bill, but it’s a shame that legislators were not willing to compromise on the lottery.
While this special legislative session did succeed in passing the BP bill, the legislature still failed to let the people vote on a lottery, which was the whole point of the special session in the first place.
I will never understand why some legislators are afraid of democracy. They trust the voters to elect them, but not to vote on whether they want a lottery or casinos.
They talk about how the people know how to spend their money better than the government does, but then they use the power of the government to tell people that they can’t spend their money playing the lottery or at a casino.
Getting the BP bill passed was a small miracle, but it’s a shame that legislators will continue to deny the people their right to vote.
Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.