Here we are again, Alabama, 20 years later and still talking about having a state lottery.
It is time for the Legislature to approve putting a referendum on the ballot and allow voters another opportunity to decide this issue.
Yet, unsurprising, it is the continuous political tug-of-war games being played by lawmakers representing special interests that tie too many strings to what should be a much simpler ballot proposal.
The five holdouts
The year 1999 was the last time voters in the state had a chance to have their say with a vote on the lottery. And the vote was no.
But much has changed during the past two decades.
Gambling, at least in the form of a lottery, isn’t seen as quite the serious vice as it was then, if participation in other state lotteries is any indication of interest.
Meanwhile, the all-tempting lure of grand prizes has steadily grown to baffling new heights, as mega lottery jackpots consistently soar into the millions of dollars.
Perhaps most telling, in looking at the lottery from a national perspective: Alabama remains one of only five states — along with Utah, Alaska, Hawaii and Nevada — without a state lottery.
Everyone who plays the lottery dreams of being rich, and others feel it simply is fun to spend a couple of bucks on taking that chance.
Yet, other factors have not changed at all over the years. Most notable among those opposing a lottery is the belief that it preys upon the poor and remains a game of chance that pulls dollars from more important daily needs.
More speed bumps
Also unchanged is the bickering over where lottery revenue should go. Should it be earmarked for education?
Should it be used to build new prisons and keep the federal government from stepping in and taking away authority over how we do our business, a move that also could cost state taxpayers even more?
Should the lottery revenue be sent to the general fund, where lawmakers can decide year-by-year how best to meet needs with the available money?
The fact that these questions remain up for debate, and thus how the money would be tracked and properly accounted for, most certainly deserves the need for voters to observe a caution light on this decision.
The state Senate narrowly approved a lottery bill on Friday, and next it goes to the House.
The Senate-approved version earmarks zero money for education, and instead the money seems destined for general fund and prison use. Education, Medicare expansion and infrastructure, to name a few, are issues that deserve special attention when talking new revenue.
It will be interesting to see if the House will make amendments to clarify where the money will go before promising voters that proper accountability is in order. Or, to see if the House does so and then the issue once again gets bogged down in the Legislature and goes nowhere.
But of course, another question regarding where the revenue goes is: Do enough voters deciding on a lottery even care?
Worth the gamble?
Alabama voters would have to approve any lottery measure because it would require a change in the state constitution. However, before it can go to a ballot, the House and Senate must first approve.
If approved by both, the proposal would go before voters on March 3, 2020, the same day as the presidential and U.S. Senate primaries.
The proposed constitutional amendment would authorize a lottery played with paper tickets, including instant tickets and multi-state lottery games, and would prohibit video lottery terminals that can resemble slot machines.
Senators added an amendment to allow electronic tickets for non-instant lottery games, the Associated Press reported.
The Legislative Service Agency, which estimates how much revenue bills will generate, predicted a paper lottery would produce $166.7 million annually.
The proceeds, as mentioned earlier, would go to the state general fund and various state savings accounts, although more information and debate deserve to be heard regarding money management and tracking of lottery funds.
Getting the measure back in front of voters has proven a politically tricky task.
Then-Gov. Don Siegelman had campaigned hard for a lottery when it was rejected in 1999, and it continued to be a political hot potato for him for years to come that would carry with it risks and costs.
Former Gov. Robert Bentley called in 2016 for a state lottery in response to a state budget crisis, but the measure failed to get out of the Legislature.
Yet years later, there continues to be a groundswell of support for Alabama to have a lottery.
It’s time once again to measure that support, and a new generation of voters deserves to be heard.
If the issue passes its legislative hurdles and a lottery referendum in 2020 wins approval, then a wide array of new questions and responsibilities still will need to be addressed.
Take a tally
Opinions remain varied on the idea of Alabama sponsoring a statewide lottery. More work needs to be done to present voters a complete lottery plan; a plan that should include undisputed transparency and smart money management.
Also, what steps will be in place to assist gambling addicts or other social concerns associated with a lottery?
The lottery issue, however, deserves in the end to be settled by voters at the ballot box, and not merely by lobbyists and lawmakers with vested and varied political interests.
Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @troyturnernews.