By Danny Garrett
It has been a hot, sweltering summer.
Suppose Governor Bentley approached you and said – “If you sign this document, I will build you a swimming pool. You just go out of town for a couple of weeks, and when you return, you will have a new swimming pool!”
Although this offer may sound like a great deal on a hot day, not many people I know would take it. When you return home, you might have a “pool,” but what kind of pool? Above ground or in-ground? Salt water or chlorine? Round, oval or rectangular? Would your brand new pool be located in a vacant spot in the back yard, or would the deck that you enjoy so much have been bulldozed to make room for the pool? How deep would the pool be? Would it have a diving board? Or maybe the Governor chose a “lap pool” for you. Would the pool be for your exclusive use or would the Governor have cut deals with your neighbors to build– for neighborhood use– one HUGE pool straddling everyone’s yard.
Suddenly, you realize all the important details you hadn’t thought of when you were so carried away with the Governor’s amazing offer. Your “free pool” is nothing but a big problem, and you are stuck with it. And the Governor is nowhere to be found.
This is exactly the type of legislation – and I use that term loosely – that was presented to the legislature to consider last week regarding the lottery. Among other concerns, the Governor’s lottery bill:
- Lacked details and specifics, including a definition of the term “lottery”
- Contained NO enabling legislation (Governor Siegelman’s Education lottery bill in 1999 was 43 pages long and included details and specifics; Governor Bentley’s General Fund lottery bill was only 6 pages long)
- Provided that up to $100 million of lottery proceeds would be used for Medicaid, but it did not include language to protect current Medicaid funding in the General Fund (the bill did include such language to insure that the insignificant amount of lottery proceeds sent to the Education Trust Fund would not replace other monies in the ETF). The Governor’s bill could have been used as part of a “shell game” with General Fund monies to supplant current Medicaid funding.
- Gave Governor Bentley the authority to APPOINT three of the six members of the Lottery Commission (the Governor’s first draft gave him authority to appoint ALL SIX members). The other members of the Commission would be APPOINTED by the Speaker of the House, the Senate Pro Tem and the Secretary of Agriculture (yes, believe it or not, you read that correctly)
- Did NOT contain a “Fiscal Note” from the Legislative Financial Office, which means the fiscal department could not estimate with confidence the financial impact – positive or negative– to the state from the Governor’s bill. It is HIGHLY UNUSUAL for legislation that will impact state finances not include a fiscal note from the Legislative Fiscal Office.
Because Governor Bentley’s bill was vague and lacking in details, some have said it was similar to the Obamacare legislation: “pass it and then read it.” Actually, the Governor’s bill was worse: it was “pass it and then WRITE it”.
The reality is that, had the Governor’ bill passed, the people of Alabama would have been voting NOT on a specific lottery proposal, but would have been voting on possibly changing the Constitution of Alabama to allow Governor Bentley to have broad powers to drive enabling legislation (such legislation “to be determined later”) and to appoint half of the Lottery Commission members, who would write the rules and regulations (also “to be determined later”). Under this scenario, although 3/5 vote was required by the Legislature for a Constitutional Amendment to be on the ballot, the enabling legislation – which would also have been determined at a later date – would have required only a simple majority vote by the legislature. Determined by “the legislature”– NOT “the people.”
In 1999, when the people voted on Governor Siegelman’s Education lottery proposal, 3/5 of the legislature had previously approved the enabling legislation. Governor Bentley’s approach would have provided that only a simple majority of the legislature approve the final law. I see this strategy as a disingenuous attempt at an “end-run” of the process to adopt a Constitutional Amendment.
To be clear, I am fundamentally opposed to a lottery for numerous reasons.
- Because 80 percent of lottery proceeds nationwide are funded by people making less than $30,000 per year, I believe it is a regressive “tax” that takes advantage of the poor and “the least of these.” I have sponsored legislation the past two years to reform predatory lending; I view the lottery as predatory gaming.
- Also, in order to generate Governor Bentley’s estimate of $225 million on net lottery proceeds to the state, $750 million of gross lottery tickets would have to be sold. That $750 million would be paid directly to the state and bypass local and state economies. The $750 million – which would otherwise be turning over 6-7 times in the economy and generating sales and income taxes to benefit the Education Trust Fund – would be paid directly to the state of Alabama and I am convinced would negatively impact the dollars available for education in the state.
- Establishment of a Lottery Commission and the accompanying administrative resources would be an EXPANSION of state government.
- Lottery revenue nationwide is declining and is an unpredictable source of funding. Certainly, it is a poor financial policy to employ as a fundamental base for state budgeting.
The Governor’s mantra was “let the people vote.” But vote on what? The Governor’s bill had no substance.
In order to bring about clarification and improve the bill, during the course of the debate on the House floor I voted FOR amendments to the Governor’s bill that would have (1) ELECTED lottery commissioners and (2) DEFINED the term “lottery.”
I also voted FOR a substitute bill that would have let the people vote simply “yes” or “no” if they wanted the legislature to develop comprehensive lottery legislation. Under this approach, if the people had voted “yes,” then a detailed lottery bill would have been developed in the normal process (not in 2 days in a special session) and be on the ballot at a later date for a vote. The substitute bill to allow a simple “yes” or “no” vote was defeated. It appears the Governor, as well as some gaming interests, purposely wanted the vague bill to be on the ballot.
The Governor’s bill ultimately passed the House with 100 percent support from Democrats and 47 percent support of Republicans. However, because the House had amended the Governor’s bill to define the term “lottery”, several Senate Democrats refused to support the clarification in definition and the bill died in the Senate.
The Governor’s lottery bill was supposed to address the current and long-term Medicaid issue facing our state. In fact, the Governor’s bill would not have impacted Medicaid until 2018. Medicaid funding is complex and very critical to our citizens; the legislature has not yet addressed how to best proceed in the environment of escalating health care costs. However, as imperative as it is that we address that problem, reckless and haphazard lottery legislation is a completely unacceptable substitute for real leadership and a long-term solution.
I mean no disrespect, but the Governor has been less than truthful on this issue with the people of Alabama. The day of the lottery bill vote in the House, each legislator received a hand written note from Governor Bentley that said; “My goal is to have a simple lottery to help our people and solve a decades old problem dealing with our general fund particularly Medicaid.”
The Governor ‘s bill did NOT solve the General Fund OR the Medicaid problem. Even the representative carrying the legislation for the Governor said so. In reality, I believe because the bill did not protect Medicaid money currently coming from the General Fund, his bill put Medicaid at more risk. And I believe the bill would actually harm many of people it purports to help. The Governor also said that legislators who did not support his bill “did not care about dying children.” How disappointing. How opportunistic. How politicizing. And how untrue.
It is important that we proactively address the Medicaid issue in Alabama. I am committed to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and the Governor, to find a long-term solution.
Financial solutions require information, deliberation, assessment, discipline and tough decisions.
Financial problems are rarely solved by buying a lottery ticket.