Lawmakers weigh lottery bill chances

Published 5:37 pm Saturday, July 23, 2016

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said lawmakers are being polled about support for lottery legislation as the governor mulls a possible special session.

Marsh said the interest of legislators is being gauged as Bentley floats the idea of a special session on the budget that could include lottery legislation.

“We need to talk to our colleagues about if there is a sentiment to take that on,” Marsh said in an interview. Marsh, who had unsuccessfully introduced casino legislation, said he thought there was more support for a lottery than full-fledged casino gambling.

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Bentley told reporters this week that he was contemplating a special session in the coming months and would be announcing a decision soon. He said a lottery has “always” had been an option — along with tax increases and ending tax breaks — for finding additional money for the state’s Medicaid program. Lawmakers budgeted $700 million for the state Medicaid program in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Bentley said $785 million is needed to maintain the program that provides health care for 1 million Alabamians, mostly children, the disabled and the elderly.

“We’ve got to work with our leadership. We’re not going to come in and do nothing. We’re going to continue to talk,” Bentley said after an appearance this week.

Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, said he is working on a new version of his lottery bill for the next time lawmakers are in session. McClendon said he has had lengthy conversations with the governor about his legislation but added that he could not speak for the governor’s intentions regarding a special session.

“The constituents in my district have made it clear to me that they don’t understand why we don’t have a lottery,” McClendon said. “The people of Alabama want it and the people of Alabama deserve the opportunity to vote yes or no.”

McClendon’s previous lottery bill came under criticism in the last session because it left most of the details, including how the money would be used, to be decided later by lawmakers. McClendon declined to offer specifics, but said his new proposal would be more defined and he was incorporating senators’ suggestions.

Alabama is one of six states — along with Mississippi, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada — without a state lottery. Then-Gov. Don Siegelman made a state lottery to fund education the centerpiece of his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, but state citizens voted down the referendum in 1999.

Lawmakers face a ticking clock if they want to get the bill before voters in November. McClendon said the legislation would have to be approved by Aug. 24 to be on the November presidential ballot.

Another option for finding money for Medicaid could involve use of the state’s oil spill settlement funds, although those efforts unraveled in the last session. Lawmakers in the last session debated proposals to monetize the settlement and get money up front through a bond issue, instead of through yearly installments. However, the bills failed after lawmakers could not agree on how to use the windfall. Using the money to pay off state debts early could have freed up additional budget dollars for Medicaid.

Sen. Jabo Waggoner said he thought there were four or five subjects, largely budget-related, that could prompt a special session, including: lottery legislation, a proposed gas tax; Medicaid funding and use of the oil spill funds.

A potential complication for special session timing is the lack of a clear leader in the House of Representatives after Speaker Mike Hubbard was removed from office in June following his conviction on felony ethics charges. House members will elect a new speaker the next time they meet in session.

House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said Bentley has so far had “zero” conversations with Democrats, something Ford said Bentley should do if he wants to be successful.

Ford plans to introduce his own lottery bill that would use proceeds for education, including two-year college scholarships.

Alabama’s Medicaid program earlier this month announced it was ending enhanced reimbursement payments for primary care doctors because of the budget difficulties. The “primary care bump” put Medicaid primary care reimbursement rates on par with Medicare rates. Originally required by and paid for by the federal Affordable Care Act, it was designed to get more doctors to serve Medicaid patients.

Bentley, a physician, said this week that he would like to find money to continue the enhanced payments for primary care doctors.

“I don’t want to cut our primary care doctors. They are the ones on the front lines,” Bentley said.