Alabama lottery bill advances through House committee

Published 9:46 pm Thursday, March 17, 2022

An Alabama legislative committee advanced a lottery proposal Thursday as proponents try to get the issue before voters for the first time since 1999.

The House Tourism and Economic Development committee approved the proposed constitutional amendment and related enabling legislation. The bills now move to the full House of Representatives.

Alabama is one of five states without a state lottery. Republican Rep. Chip Brown, the bill’s sponsor, said it is the top issue he and other lawmakers get asked about in their districts. He said many Alabamians now drive across state lines to buy tickets.

“The people of Alabama have been playing the lottery for years. We’ve just been playing it in other states. So it’s time we kept that money in-state and helped out the children of the state of Alabama,” Brown told reporters.

The measure faces a short window to win final approval with just seven meeting days remaining in the legislative session. Brown said he hoped for a vote in the final week of March when lawmakers return from spring break.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said he first wants assurances that supporters have the needed 63 votes for passage before bogging down one of the final legislative days with the lengthy debate. He asked members to spend spring break talking with constituents and colleagues to determine the level of support.

“We’ve got to see where the votes are,” McCutcheon said.

Lottery proceeds would be used primarily to provide scholarships to help families pay a portion of tuition at two and four-year colleges. The two-year scholarships would be capped at $2,500 or less. The amount of the four-year scholarships would be determined based on lottery proceeds and the number of eligible recipients.

The Legislative Services Agency estimated a lottery would generate $198 million to $285 million annually, after paying prizes and expenses.

Rep. Neil Rafferty, a Democrat from Birmingham told Brown he wanted to make sure low-income families are receiving an equitable share of the benefits from lottery proceeds.

“It is usually not wealthy people that are participating in the lottery. If we are going to do the lottery, we ought to do it right and I would want equity in that,” Rafferty said.

The committee approval came after a brief public hearing in which two opponents spoke against the proposal.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, told the committee lottery benefits will be fueled by tickets bought by low-income Alabamians.

“Wealthy people don’t buy lottery tickets. This is coming out of the pockets of the poor,” Godfrey said.

If approved by three-fifths of lawmakers, the lottery proposal would go before voters in November.

The House lottery bill advanced as a separate proposal, that would allow a lottery and eight casinos with table games, has so far stalled in the Alabama Senate amid longstanding divisions over which sites and entities would hold the casino licenses.

Alabama is just one of five states — along with Nevada, Utah, Alaska and Hawaii — without a state lottery.

State voters in 1999 rejected a lottery proposed by then-Gov. Don Siegelman. Since then, efforts to create a state lottery or allow casinos have failed under a fatal mix of conservative opposition to legalized gambling and turf wars over who could operate lucrative electronic gambling machines.

“We’ve been talking about this ever since 1999. It’s time for the citizens of this state to decide whether they want a lottery or not,” Rep. Berry Forte, a Democrat from Eufaula, said during the committee debate.