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Powerball craze lays the groundwork for another Alabama lottery push

A man scratches off his lottery ticket in hopes of winning. (Photo: Chris Goldberg)
A man scratches off his lottery ticket in hopes of winning. (Photo: Chris Goldberg)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In 1999, Alabamians voted down Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposed “education lottery” 54% to 46%. Since then, numerous statewide candidates — most of them Democrats — have run on a platform of letting the people vote again. In 2016, with Alabama’s budgeting woes continuing and a $700 million Powerball jackpot sending lottery advocates into a craze, another push is beginning to emerge.

State Senator Jim McClendon (R-Springville) has filed a lottery bill for the 2016 legislative session, which is set to begin next month.

“I am sponsoring this because of constituent requests,” McClendon told ABC 33/40’s Lauren Walsh. “Throughout my district, people have said why don’t we have a lottery in Alabama? We’re driving to Georgia and Tennessee. We’re driving out of state and spending our money and we’d like to spend our money right here at home.”

McClendon says he believes the lottery would raise $300 million in additional revenue for the state on an annual basis, but his bill does not stipulate what the funds would be used for.

Gambling advocates in recent years have pushed an “education lottery,” which would earmark the revenue to go toward the state’s education budget. But Alabama’s systemic budgeting issues are mostly centered in the General Fund, where the largest line items are Medicaid and prisons.

Polling indicates a sharp decline in support for a lottery that is not earmarked for education, but a Washington Post report published in 2012 called into question whether so called education lotteries actually benefit public schools anyway. According to the report, legislators in many states have concocted ways to keep the additional funds from ever making it into classrooms. In Texas, for instance, lottery funds paid for about two weeks of schooling for public school students in 1996. By 2010 it was down to three days.

A gambling expansion of any kind will face fierce opposition from Alabama’s large swath of evangelical voters.

Dr. Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), an almost 80-year-old organization that describes itself as “Alabama’s moral compass,” last month expressed concerns that “illegal gambling is taking over this state” and reiterated his group’s opposition to an expansion of any kind.

But there are signs that some longtime gambling opponents are considering softening their stance.

“Historically, I’ve opposed them,” powerful state senator Jabo Waggoner (R- Vestavia Hills) told ABC 33/40. But he says he is now considering throwing his support behind a bill that would bring the issue up for a vote again.

With little appetite among Republican lawmakers for additional tax increases, particularly after last year’s tense budget battles, gambling could continue to gain momentum as an alternative revenue stream that would prevent legislators from having to make additional cuts and reforms to state government.