Alabama Senate majority leader on lottery vote: ‘I think there’s a mandate’

Republican leaders in the Alabama Legislature say they are hearing more than ever from people in their districts who want a chance to vote on a lottery.

Two days after Sen. Del Marsh’s plan for a lottery, casinos, and sports betting came up two votes short in the Senate, talk at the State House has turned to proposals for a lottery only.

Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield of Guntersville, who voted against Marsh’s bill, said he would consider supporting a lottery and believes there is a good chance other Republican senators would.

“We’re hearing from folks even more, now that this issue is being stirred up, that that’s what they want,” Scofield said. “I think there’s a mandate.”

It takes approval by three-fifths of senators and representatives to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. No lottery bill has cleared that bar since 1999, when voters rejected Gov. Don Siegelman’s proposal.

The Senate voted 19-13 in favor of Marsh’s bill, but that’s two votes shy of the 21 needed in the 35-member Senate. All 13 no votes came from Republicans, who hold 27 seats.

Marsh’s bill would have allowed seven new casinos, including four at the state’s greyhound tracks. It would have allowed the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to offer a full range of casino games at their electronic bingo resorts in Atmore, Montgomery, and Wetumpka. That would have meant a total of 10 casinos across Alabama. It would have also set up a commission to regulate gambling statewide.

The lottery, casinos, and sports betting was projected to raise $500 million or more in state revenue for college scholarships, expansion of high-speed internet access, rural health care, mental health care, the state General Fund, and other programs.

Scofield, despite being a leading advocate for the expansion of broadband internet, said he opposed the bill because of the magnitude of the gambling expansion that would have come with the casinos.

“That really impacts the state in a major, major way,” Scofield said. “Moderation on something like that is not a bad thing. I think a lottery, getting that in, is a good first step.”

“I think we start there, and if it’s appropriate we debate the other.”

Scofield said there is a good chance the Senate will debate a lottery bill before this legislative session ends in mid-May.

“I think the likelihood of that is pretty strong,” Scofield said. “I really do. We’re not even halfway through yet. You’ve seen kind of a momentum.”

Sens. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, and Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, have introduced lottery bills.

McClendon’s bill would allow multi-state lottery games such as Powerball and Mega Millions, as well as instant games or scratch-offs. It would also allow people to play lottery games on their phone.

“There’s a whole generation of people that if they can’t do it on their telephone, they’re not going to do it,” McClendon said. “They order lunch on their phone. They meet their spouses on the phone.

“If they can’t buy a lottery ticket on the phone, that generation will not stand in line at the handy mart.”

For years, lottery bills have fallen short of the three-fifths vote needed because of opposition to gambling by some lawmakers and competing interests about how a lottery would affect gambling that’s in the state now.

Some Democratic lawmakers have opposed lottery bills that made no provision or protection for the electronic bingo operations at the state’s greyhound tracks and other locations in Greene, Lowndes, and Macon counties. McClendon does not intend to include any provisions for those counties in his bill. Some previous lottery bills have included video lottery terminals at the dog tracks, but that’s not in the plan McClendon is proposing.

McClendon said he understands that might cost him Democratic support. He hopes to round up the 21 votes he needs from Republican senators.

“I don’t know where the Democrats are going to be,” McClendon said. “So, what I’m trying to do is get my 21 out of my caucus. So, if I can do that, maybe I can pick up some across the aisle.”

McClendon’s lottery bill would split the net revenue evenly between education and the state General Fund.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said it will take votes from Republicans and Democrats to pass a lottery bill.

McCutcheon, like Scofield, said the call from voters for a chance to settle the lottery issue is louder than ever. He said it started even before all the attention drawn to Marsh’s bill. Forty-five states have lotteries, including Alabama’s four bordering neighbors.

“This has been going on over the past year or so,” McCutcheon said. “When you talk to members about the lottery, gaming issue, the first part of the discussion goes like, ‘Well I’m hearing more from my constituents about the fact that they want a lottery.’ So, I think there’s more response now from the constituents than ever before.”

That includes his north Alabama district in Limestone and Madison counties.

“So many of those people years ago who did not support a lottery, over the years they’ve seen a lot of those Alabama vehicles going across that state line and buying those lottery tickets,” McCutcheon said. “And they’re saying, we’re losing those dollars.”

McCutcheon said complications remain because of the interests of the counties that rely on the dog tracks and electronic bingo. He said lawmakers from those districts are bound to take that into consideration as they decide whether to support a lottery.

Another complication is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ electronic bingo casinos, which are on tribal lands and pay no state taxes on the gambling revenue. Marsh’s plan called for Gov. Kay Ivey to enter a compact with the Poarch Creeks that would have allowed a new casino on non-tribal land in northeast Alabama that would have paid state taxes and license fees.

McCutcheon said it’s hard to separate consideration of a lottery from the concerns about tribal casinos and electronic bingo.

“You cannot talk about a lottery without those other discussions taking place,” McCutcheon said.

McCutcheon says House leaders are talking to Senate leaders and Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration about what comes next on gambling legislation.

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, a longtime lottery proponent, has a lottery bill this year.

Ivey took an active role in Marsh’s bill. After it failed in Tuesday’s vote, the governor said she would stay engaged because the issue of gambling was too important not to get right.

Last year, Ivey appointed a study group last year that issued a long report saying Alabama gains nothing from the patchwork of gambling with no uniform oversight.

Read the report.

“No doubt gambling is complex and challenging, but I remain committed to giving the people of Alabama the final say,” Ivey said after Marsh’s bill was voted down.

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said he believes Marsh’s bill helped bring lawmakers closer to an agreement on gambling legislation.

“I think all the work he put in and the effort he brought forward allowed the issue to move some steps forward even though his legislation did not pass,” Reed said.

“Obviously that topic and issue is not over. Members are still continuing to discuss it and talk about it.”

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