By Steve Flowers, Inside the Statehouse commentary
The 2021 Legislative Session is in the books. I would rate it a success. When you pass budgets that are balanced, any session is a success. In fact, the only constitutional mandate given to the legislature is that they pass the two budgets.
The amazing revelation that is almost difficult to comprehend is the fact that both the General Fund and the Educational Fund budgets were not only status quo but were flush with growth coming out of a year of the COVID pandemic. State employees and teachers both received raises in the budgets.
Alabama is one of the few states in America that has not been devastated financially by the pandemic.
A lot of credit for this good fiscal stability goes to the Chairmen of the Budget Committees in both the House and Senate. They have worked and strived diligently to pass conservative budgets with reserve accounts that have allowed the state to avoid rainy days.
The state owes a debt of gratitude and a tip of the hat to House Budget Chairmen, Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa) and Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) and Senate Finance Chairmen, Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Greg Albritton (R-Escambia).
The Legislature dealt with a lot of high-profile issues. Not the least of which was the perennial issue of allowing doctors to prescribe medicinal marijuana for pain for their patients. This prescription has been allowed for years in many states. Now, Alabama doctors will be able to prescribe this medication to their patients.
The gambling issue dominated the entire session. The state Senate passed the gambling proposal to send to the people for a vote. However, it failed in the House of Representatives. It is a Constitutional Amendment and therefore needs 21 votes in the 35-member State Senate and 63 votes in the State House of 105 member representatives. It does not even go to the governor for a signature but goes straight to the ballot. The governor is very much for this initiative. However, it probably needs to be dealt with in a special session in order for it to pass. Governor Ivey needs to really promote the issue in a special session where it is the only issue dealt with and focused on. She has plenty of time. The Amendment if approved by legislators is not set to be voted on until the November 2022 General Election.
This proposed constitutional amendment is a very all-encompassing gambling plan. It institutes a lottery, authorizes sports betting and legalizes casinos around the state. It is a constitutional amendment that will also be exact and detailed and with authoritative gambling policy enforcement procedures. This regulation of gambling has been needed for years because we already have gambling in Alabama.
The new state gambling regulatory commission would oversee the lottery, as well as the five existing casinos in Macon, Mobile, Greene and Jefferson counties, and one yet to be determined in Northeast Alabama. This new location would be in the pristine Northeast Alabama mountains and would be given to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. It would have the potential to be a destination tourist attraction.
The Poarch Creek casinos would continue to be regulated by federal statutes, but the state would be enabled to enter into a compact with the tribe for Class III table games.
All lottery revenue would be directed to education, including scholarships for higher education and trade schools and a loan forgiveness program for graduates who locate back in Alabama. The annual revenue from casinos and sports betting would be divided for several uses. Almost 50% would be up to the legislature to appropriate toward capital or other non-recurring expenses. Forty percent would be earmarked for “enhanced health care services,” and 10% would be divided among counties and cities for “Capital or other non-recurring expenses.”
Under the legislation for all gambling revenue up to 5% would be set aside for initiatives to help problem gamblers.
This legislation pretty much tracks the recommendations of Governor Kay Ivey’s proposal and actually does not even require her signature. She was very prominently lobbying for its passage and will endorse its ratification by Alabama voters. It will reap a significant amount of revenue for the State of Alabama.
You may very well see it come up again this year in a special session.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.