Bentley goes from lottery critic to proponent

Published 9:22 pm Monday, August 1, 2016

By Kim Chandler | The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY (AP) — In Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s 2010 campaign for governor, he said he supported the people’s right to vote on gambling, but that he personally opposed gambling — calling it a detriment to society because it hurts those who can least afford it. Six years later, the Republican governor is proposing a state lottery, saying the state needs the revenue to help the poor.

Bentley’s announcement of a special session on a state lottery comes after years of a murky path on the subject of gambling. He now says it is the only choice left for funding Medicaid and the General Fund after the state tried cutting costs, borrowing money and raising taxes.

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“Helping the people of this state is more important than any opposition I personally may have,” Bentley said in a telephone interview Monday. “I look at a lottery as somewhat different. I don’t think that you have the social problems you have with a lottery that you do with casino gambling.”

Bentley’s 2010 campaign website read at one point: “Let me reiterate that I am personally opposed to gambling in any form or fashion because it preys upon the people who can least afford it and it is an unreliable source to fund the operations of government.”

The governor’s campaign revised the section on gambling several times, according to archived web pages. The section about preying on the poor was removed, but he consistently criticized gambling as a detriment to society.

Bentley told the Alabama Hospital Association recently that he prayed about the decision.

“As a Christian I have read the Bible a number of times, it is full about talking about helping the poor. I don’t see anything about a lottery. …. We have got to help the poor of this state,” Bentley said.

The governor told the group he wanted most of the money to go to the state’s Medicaid program. The governor as recently as 2015 knocked gambling as a solution for the, “2016 budget, or really for future budgets.” But at the end of 2015, after battling with Republican lawmakers over taxes, said he thought a lottery was something “hopefully the legislature will consider.”

The governor has projected a lottery would raise $225 million annually. The special session begins Aug. 15. The governor said Monday that his office will release details of the proposed constitutional amendment later this week.

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.

If lawmakers approve the legislation in the special session, it could be on the ballot during the November presidential election.

Some conservative groups criticized Bentley’s decision.

“Gov. Bentley has made a big deal that he was a deacon in his Baptist church, a Christian. I have a hard time seeing how a man in a leadership role in his state could support something that will be so damaging to his people,” said Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program — a religious-affiliated group that has fought gambling proposals in the state. The state’s previous two governors had clearly defined stances on gambling. Former Gov. Don Siegelman made a lottery the center piece of his 1998 gubernatorial campaign, although the referendum failed at the poll under heavy opposition from churches and out-of-state gambling interests. Former Gov. Bob Riley was a staunch opponent and authorized state raids to seize electronic bingo machines, devices that closely resemble slot machines.

Bentley voted against the 1999 lottery proposal. He also initially authorized the use of state police to help the attorney general’s office in raids on bingo casinos.

However, in 2015 he signed an executive order saying he wanted the state of out the gambling enforcement business and that enforcement should be left to local law enforcement.