Bentley calls special session for state lottery

Published 8:34 pm Wednesday, July 27, 2016

By Kim Chandler | The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Gov. Robert Bentley announced Wednesday that he is calling a special legislative to help solve Alabama’s money woes by creating a state lottery in one of the few states that don’t yet sell the mania-inducing tickets.

In a five-minute announcement video released by his office, the Republican governor pitched the idea of a lottery as a revenue source for perpetually cash-strapped state budgets and urged lawmakers to approve putting the idea before voters in a statewide referendum.

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“I trust the voters, and our legislators must do the same,” Bentley said. “Montgomery doesn’t have all the answers. Let’s hear from the people of this great state on whether the time has come to approve a statewide lottery to help fund essential state services.”

The announcement signals waning opposition among some conservatives to legalized gambling in the Deep South state, where Christian evangelicals still dominate politics, but conservatives have been steadfast in their opposition to tax hikes.

With this endorsement, Bentley becomes the first Alabama governor promoting a lottery since Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman pushed the idea in 1999, only to be defeated under heavy opposition from church groups.

Bentley alluded to the legislature’s rejection of his proposal for $541 million in tax hikes last year, and said that despite cuts in bureaucracy, Alabama can no provide “basic services” without another funding source.

“The time has come for us to find a permanent solution. This solution will provide funding that we can count on year after year without ever having to raise your taxes or put one more Band-Aid on our state’s money problems,” Bentley said.

Alabama is one of six states — along with Mississippi, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada — without a state lottery. Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman made a state lottery to fund education the centerpiece of his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, but voters rejected it in 1999 under heavy opposition from church groups.

“It’s time we stopped supporting other states’ budgets and keep our money at home,” Bentley said.

Since the Alabama Constitution bans most games of chance, three-fifths of legislators would have to approve the legislation and a majority of voters would have to approve changing the state constitution to allow a lottery.

The governor did not give a date for the special session or a statewide referendum, but some lawmakers urged him to call the session in August so the idea could be put before voters in November. A spokeswoman said the governor will announce the dates in a few days.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh urged Bentley to call it soon.

“Any referendum passed by the legislature after August 24th would require a special election costing taxpayers $4 million, which is an unnecessary expense to the state at a time of budget shortfalls,” Marsh said.

The governor provided only a few details in his video. He said a lottery could raise $225 million annually to fund services for “our children, our elderly, those with mental illness and those who are in the most need as well as the men and women in law enforcement.”

Republicans who control both chambers of the legislature had mixed reactions. Lottery legislation failed last year amid disagreements on how to spend the money and whether casino gambling also should be put before voters.

“It’s probably my last choice. It’s a terrible way to fund government. But at the end of the day, it’s something we need to debate,” said Sen. Trip Pittman, chairman of the Senate General Fund budget committee.

Rep. Rich Wingo said he’s “extremely disappointed, because he believes a lottery would prey upon the state’s poor, taking money from people who can’t afford to lose it.

“I’m 100 percent opposed to the lottery or gambling of any kind,” Wingo said. “It’s our state government playing our citizens for fools.”

But Sen. Jim McClendon said support for a lottery has grown since voters rejected the idea in 1999.

“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.

Bentley, a conservative Baptist, had sent mixed signals on lotteries for years, calling them as outdated as “leisure suits.” But last week, he said a lottery had “always” been an option for funding Medicaid after lawmakers largely rejected his tax proposals last year.

The announcement created a welcome change of headlines for the embattled governor, who has been caught up in the aftermath of a scandal involving his relationship with a former top aide.

Twenty-three House members filed impeachment articles against Bentley after his former law enforcement director accused the governor of having an affair with a staffer and interfering in law enforcement business. Bentley denied both accusations but acknowledged having “inappropriate” conversations.