Gov. Robert Bentley’s lottery bill failed just short of the legislative finish line Friday as support in the Alabama Senate suddenly crumbled amid disagreements over electronic gambling.
Senators voted 23-7 against accepting changes made by the House of Representatives. The Senate disapproval killed the proposed lottery referendum that Bentley hoped would provide money to the state’s cash-strapped Medicaid program.
“I just can’t believe the Legislature would not allow the people of the state of Alabama to vote on this issue,” Bentley said at a press conference after the legislative defeat. “They looked those children in the eye today, those that voted against it, and they said, ‘I am not going to do anything to fund your health insurance,’” Bentley said referring to the children on state Medicaid rolls.
The bill stumbled on what was supposed to be its final hurdle Friday after narrowly winning approval late Thursday in the Alabama House of Representatives. The fragile 21-vote coalition needed in the Senate fell apart after some Democrats withdrew support. Democrats sought the ability to allow electronic machines at state dog tracks, arguing the bill as written would allow the Poarch Band of Creek Indians to have a monopoly on gambling. Republicans defected from the bill as well, leaving only seven senators supporting the House-passed plan.
“It was a domino effect. Once one thing fell apart, it all fell apart,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said.
Democratic senators objected to House-added language prohibiting electronic lottery terminals – which some members hoped could be a possibility at state dog tracks – by saying a lottery could only be played on paper tickets. They also wanted language to guarantee the tracks would have the same casino or machine games as the Poarch Band of Creek Indians if the state’s governor ever negotiated a compact.
“If the governor did nothing, it would still be a clean lottery. That’s all we were asking was to put more money on the table,” Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.
Senate Minority Leader Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, said allowing the terminals could have provided immediate revenue to the state’s Medicaid program, instead of waiting for traditional lottery operations to get up and running.
Singleton said the blame shouldn’t fall on Democrats since there are few Democrats in the 35-member Senate.
The Republican governor had sought to end the Deep South state’s historic opposition to gambling as a revenue source. Alabama would have become the 45th state with a lottery if lawmakers and voters had approved the idea.
Bentley wanted the first statewide vote on a lottery since Alabamians rejected the idea in 1999.
The sudden defeat in the Senate was a bitter loss for the governor and lottery supporters who at one point seemed close to clinching victory.
“I will say this: We are not done. You will see this bill again. We will keep going. My goal is to respond to the citizens of Alabama who want the right to vote,” Sen. Jim McClendon, the bill’s sponsor, said.
McClendon said there were groups pressuring Republicans not to support the bill, separate from the gambling machine turf war. He declined to name them.
Lawmakers return to Montgomery on Sept. 6 to finish the special session on Medicaid funding. Their focus will be on a proposed division of the state’s oil spill settlement fund, which could provide some additional money to Medicaid in the next fiscal year.
Senators had been trying to reach a compromise that would use some money to pay state debts early – which could free up money for Medicaid – and building roads in south Alabama.
Marsh said senators might have to start over now that the lottery isn’t a possibility to provide money to Medicaid in the long-term.
“Now you’ve got to look at maybe using those dollars that would have been used for the south or the coast or even in the debt payment and asking yourself if should be used for Medicaid until we find a solution on the general fund,” Marsh said.