By State Rep. Craig Ford
Alabamians have been asking for a lottery for years. It continues to be one of the most popular ideas polled year in and year out, yet we still don’t have a state lottery.
But there’s a chance that could change next year.
The Alabama Legislature won’t return to Montgomery until after the November elections. But because there will be so many new legislators after the election (since so many incumbent lawmakers are either retiring or running for a different office), and because it will be the first year of the new lawmakers’ terms of office, which is typically when lawmakers are most willing to make big changes, next year could be the year that the Alabama’s Legislature finally gives the people the chance to vote on a lottery.
Next year also will be exactly 20 years since the last time Alabamians had the chance to vote on a lottery. That lottery vote failed, but a lot has changed since then.
The lottery is no longer a partisan issue. Large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats support the lottery and leaders in both parties have introduced various lottery bills over the last few years.
We came very close to passing a lottery in 2016 during a specially-called legislative session. It took two votes in the State House of Representatives before we finally had the votes needed to pass the bill. The first round of voting failed by just two votes. The state constitution requires 63 out of 105 votes to pass a constitutional amendment out of the State House of Representatives, but we only had 61.
I personally spoke with three lawmakers, two Democrats and one Republican, who then changed their votes, and the lottery passed on the second round of voting.
Unfortunately, the lottery failed to pass out of the State Senate, and the voters were once again denied the chance to vote on a lottery. But getting the lottery passed out of the State House of Representatives fired me up, and its death in the State Senate is one of the main reasons I chose to run for the senate instead of running for re-election to the house.
There’s no doubt that a lottery could make a huge difference in our state. The most recent studies estimated that the lottery could generate more than $300 million dollars a year in new revenue.
For that much money, we could send a lot of kids to college and finally give every four-year-old in Alabama access to our nationally recognized Pre-K program.
If we chose not to use the lottery for education, then that money could be used to keep rural hospitals open or to improve our roads and bridges. Imagine the progress we could make on I-759, U.S. Hwy 411, the Southside bridge, Ala. Hwy 77 in Attalla and Meighan Boulevard with just a fraction of that money!
Of course, the lottery has to be done right. In the past, some lawmakers have proposed a “blank-check lottery,” which would only let the voters approve the concept of the lottery and would then allow the state legislature to decide the details, such as how the money would be spent.
That proposal is a non-starter for most people, and understandably so. The voters deserve a guarantee as to how the money will be spent, and they don’t want it to become a publicly-funded piggy bank for lawmakers to spend on pork projects.
Many voters prefer an education lottery for college scholarships, and that is also what I would personally like to see happen. Setting the money aside for scholarships is the only way to make sure it doesn’t get shifted around in a billion-dollar shell game that ends up re-allocating other education dollars to unpopular proposals like the $800 million-dollar prison construction plan.
But whether we dedicate the funds to education or to roads and bridges, I support it as long as it is specifically set aside for those projects. If we put a lottery like that in front of the voters – one that does not include all the pork projects that killed the lottery 20 years ago – then there’s no doubt in my mind that the people of Alabama would vote for it.
This next year could be our best chance yet at finally passing a lottery. A lot will depend on who wins these legislative elections in November (because the lottery is a constitutional amendment, it does not have to be approved by the governor). But I am more hopeful than ever before that we can finally make the lottery a reality in Alabama.
Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He currently is running for the State Senate in District 10 as an Independent.