Stateline Story

Alabama Lottery No Longer Sure Bet

  • October 07, 1999
  • By Gene Owens

MONTGOMERY -- A month ago, Alabama seemed almost certain to join 37 other states and the District of Columbia that raise revenue through lotteries. But as the Oct. 12 referendum draws near, the word "certain" has been replaced by "likely."

Voters will be deciding whether to adopt a constitutional amendment that would remove a barrier against lotteries. The state Legislature has already enacted enabling legislation to put the lottery into immediate motion.

A University of South Alabama poll of 810 likely voters, conducted Sept. 27-30, showed that 51 percent of the sample favored the lottery and 42 percent were against. That was down from 61 per cent for, 34 percent against during the last week of August. The poll was conducted for the state's three largest newspapers - the BirminghamNews, the Mobile Register and the Huntsville Times.

Gov. Don Siegelman has bet most of his political marbles on the lottery. It was the centerpiece of the Democrat's gubernatorial campaign, and since his election it's been difficult to get him to talk about anything else. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down as discriminatory the way Alabama collects its business franchise tax, knocking at least a $100 million hole in the state budget. When legislators fret about how to patch it, Siegelman talks lottery.

Siegelman has modeled his lottery proposal closely on the one in Georgia. He would use the proceeds to provide in-state college tuition for high-school students who make B averages, and tuition to trade schools for anyone who graduates from an Alabama high school. He would also provide computers for public-school classrooms and would provide a free, voluntary pre-kindergarten program.

Opposition has come from a variety of groups, including the Christian Coalition, the conservative Eagle Forum and a group called Citizens Against Legalized Lottery (CALL), headed by Jim Cooper, a Birmingham contractor. Siegelman has set up a pro-lottery political-action committee, the Alabama Education Lottery Foundation, staffed by people familiar with the Georgia lottery. Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller has come to the state to cam,paign for the lottery at Siegelman's side.

Sermons have poured from pulpits across the Bible Belt state, condemning lottery as a sinful form of gambling. Siegelman doesn't debate the moral issue. He points instead to the hundreds of millions of dollars he says have flowed out of Alabama into the lotteries of neighboring states. That money should be kept in Alabama, he says.

The poll by the University of South Alabama Polling Group showed that Alabamians have, indeed, gambled in neighboring states. Nearly 40 percent of those polled said they had bought lottery tickets in Florida, more than one in five said they had bought them in Georgia, and eight percent said they had bought them in Louisiana. A third said they hadpatronized the casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

But opponents have sounded another theme, too: even if you believe in lotteries, this is not the right lottery.

Among other things, they contend that the constitutional amendment would open the door to casino gambling. Republican Attorney General Bill Pryor has opined that the amendment actually would strengthen the constitutional prohibition against casinos. But many fear that regardless of the constitutional provision, a lottery would give the green light to the Poarch Band of the Creek Indians to operate a casino on their reservation near Atmore, 60 miles from Mobile.

Critics also complain that the amendment would put lottery funds where they're least needed. Alabama's public schools suffer from minimal local tax efforts, and as a result the state has an overabundance of portable classrooms and decrepit permanent buildings. Teacher pay lags regional and national averages. The lottery will do nothing to addressthese situations.

Heavy criticism has focused on the lottery corporation. It would be run by a board appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate. Critics claim that the enabling legislation gives the corporation too much independent power.

There's debate over whether the corporation would be required to seek competitive bids on contracts and whether it would be barred from hiring felons.

The lottery has enormous political significance for Siegelman. If it passes and achieves his goals, it could put him in position to become Alabama's long-awaited "New South governor." It could give him the clout to reform Alabama's antiquated Constitution of 1901, which has accumulated more than 550 amendments since its adoption in 1901 (among other things, it withholds home rule from localities and still has a prohibition against interracial marriage). It could even give him the opportunity to transcend state and regional politics and become a national figure.

If it fails, Siegelman will be left with a decrepit educational system, a $100 million hole in the state budget, and no palatable means of addressing either situation.

It would leave Alabama among the 13 states currently without a lottery. The others are Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota. Oklahoma, Tennessee, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming.